Opposition insists state media is bound by its own elections coverage guidelines

Opposition groups say the state media is disregarding official guidelines set for the media to follow during the run-up to the North Western and Central Provincial Council elections. The elections are scheduled to be held on Saturday.

The Commissioner of Elections Dayananda Dissanayake has given specific instructions that the state-run electronic media comply with the guidelines. The guidelines are drawn up under Article 104B5(b) of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. The chairpersons of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) are expected to comply with the guidelines issued to media institutions in regard to the publication, broadcasting and televising of programmes of a political nature during the period of the elections.

However, when approached by The Sunday Times on Friday, the Election Commissioner’s office declined to comment on measures taken to ensure the implementation of the guidelines.

JVP Propaganda Secretary and Parliamentarian Vijitha Herath told The Sunday Times that his party had spoken to the Elections Commissioner on several occasions about the use of state media during the upcoming elections.

JVP MP Sunil Handunetti, who took part in Friday’s meeting with the Elections Commissioner, said: “We have raised this matter repeatedly. Although guidelines have been issued, we have no confidence that they will be adhered to by the state media,” he said.

UNP MP Ravi Karunanayake told The Sunday Times that the Elections Commissioner said: “The government media is totally biased. The private media doesn’t fall under election laws,” he added.
However, UPFA Secretary General Minister Susil Premajayantha said the Elections Commissioner has ensured that the elections will be held in a free and fair manner.

Here are some of the guidelines issued by the Elections Commissioner:

  • All telecasting, broadcasting and print media shall be balanced and impartial in their election reporting and shall not discriminate against any contesting political party, independent group, candidate or political party leaders in granting access to air-time.
  • Owing to the potential for editorial opinion to be confused and biased, electronic media are urged not to broadcast editorial opinions. However, if editorial opinion is permitted for any reason whatsoever, it is obliged also to broadcast and telecast opinions to the contrary as well.
  • It is obligatory on the part of the news department and current affairs sections (or any similar section) of each institution not to air any programme during the campaign period, unless the contents of the programme are balanced.
  • If any material is broadcast covering an incident or event with any comment or contribution from any political party or candidate or a person concerned with a political party, all other political parties that have any interest or are concerned or are likely to be affected should also be given coverage in the same news item or programme.
  • Any documentary programme or special programmes broadcast during campaign period should disclose the names of the script writer, announcer and the editor.
  • Air-time of any programme or news bulletin should not be utilised for unsubstantial allegations against candidates or political parties or independent groups or political leaders until the election is concluded. However, if any allegation of any nature is made against a candidate, political party or political leader such party or person should be given equal time and prominence to counter such allegations.– Coverage of the President and the Prime Minister should be treated as coverage given for the political party to which he belongs and therefore leaders of political parties contesting elections should be given equal coverage in all programmes.
  • When a person refuses to participate in a discussion or interview and chooses not to offer reasons for absence, the electronic media institution shall respect that position. Dramatic devices such as an empty chair in television should not be employed to underline a refusal but it is encouraged to employ a simple and direct announcement in that instance.
  • A broadcaster who broadcasts or print media publishes the result of an opinion poll should identify the organisation that conducted the poll, the organisation or person that commissioned and paid for the poll, methodology employed, the sample size, margin of error and the fieldwork date.
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