Balanced coverage prerequisite for democracy

Last week Media and Information Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa resigned from his Ministry but decided to retain his portfolio of Export Promotion. According to newspaper reports he had stated that he was doing so in order to make time for the General Elections campaign.

A few days earlier the ITN political commentary Vimasuma stated that the Media Minister was extremely satisfied with the manner in which the state media had conducted itself during the Presidential campaign. This was an unusual comment because there was no information in the public domain stating that the Media Minister was unhappy with the conduct of the state media during the Presidential Election campaign, making one wonder whether he had in fact expressed his disapproval within the government.

Such a conclusion is possible knowing the nature of Yapa’s personality. A foremost senior SLFPer in the Government he is also one of the most honourable. Even at the weekly Cabinet briefings that he chaired Yapa, while defending the government would not comment on matters that he was unaware of, and would in such situations respond by saying he would be able to answer after ascertaining the facts.

This was in marked contrast to the innumerable other government spokesmen who would often take every opportunity to engage in cheap government propaganda. There may be others in the Government who are disturbed at the way the state media has been and still is functioning but are unable to give expression to their concerns. Even if such individuals are unable to do so publicly, it is imperative that they act in the national interest and do so at least internally.

All governments have used the state media to advance their political interests but the complaint in such situations was always that the state media did not give adequate coverage to the Opposition. Never has it happened as it did this time, that not only was the Opposition completely excluded from coverage, but it was subjected to the most obnoxious form of slander with deliberate falsehoods passing off as facts.

In fact the news programmes were marked by such a level of petty mindedness that rather than refer to General Sarath Fonseka by name they would refer to him only as the opposition candidate. Not once would General Fonseka or the Opposition be given an opportunity to state their points of view after false or negative information about them was published or broadcast.

Added to this was the scant regard shown by the state media institutions to the guidelines issued by the Elections Commissioner reducing him to a state of utter helplessness. An exhortation by the highest court in the land that the Elections Commissioner’s guidelines must be followed did nothing to improve the situation with the state media merrily doing as they pleased. What is even more alarming is the defence put forward by government spokesmen when the abuse of the state media is brought to their attention. They allege that the private media coverage is pro Opposition and therefore the use (misuse) of the state media in favour of the government is justified.

This is factually incorrect. What the private media did was to provide a platform for all parties including the government which thereby created a sense of balance in the flow of information to the public.Government representatives have been desensitized to such an extent that they interpret any form of balanced reporting as anti government. As a result they are unable to even face probing questions put to them by talk show hosts in the private media. Recently it was reported that government would boycott talk shows conducted by a particular TV station.

Although the Government did not name the station it was obvious that they were referring to the popular Satana programme broadcast by the Sirasa station. In fact the Satana programme provides a forum for a range of views of all shades of political opinion. It has a very innovative format and hard questions are asked both from the Government as well as from the Opposition, but the government politicos don’t seem to have the stomach to face up to such difficult questions.

Viewed from another perspective, the abuse of the state media has other far reaching implications. A measure of the success of a democracy is the ability of the people to make informed decisions on public matters including the choice of their representatives at an election. Given the geographical reach of the state media which is far and wide, the one sided flow of misinformation that emanates disables the decision making process of the voter and thereby undermines democracy. Whatever amount of balanced information is broadcast by the private media it does not reach a considerable section of the public as many areas in the country do not have access to the private media.

It is in the national interest that immediate action be taken to restrain the state media from going overboard as it did in the Presidential Elections. Will the President in his capacity as Media Minister direct the state media to conduct themselves in accordance with the norms of balanced and good journalism during the General Election campaign? Failing which, will the Elections Commissioner succeed where he failed last time and ensure a balanced and fair coverage in the state media? Time will tell although there are no signs to indicate that things will change for the better.

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Balanced coverage prerequisite for democracy


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