by Thilak S. Fernando

In October 2000, The Commonwealth Press Union in London sent its first ever media monitoring mission to Sri Lanka for its parliamentary elections, which the CPU called it, “ CPU’s work in Press Freedom.” Five delegates Sidhath Bhatia, Joel Kibazo from Uganda (based in Britain) Zainen Ahmed from Malaysia, Wilf Mbanga from Zimbabwe and Linda Christmas from City University and CPU London spent two and half weeks in Sri Lanka prior to the recent general election on its first media monitoring mission.

Addressing delegates in Barbados, subsequently at the CPU’s conference - Barbados 2000 - Leader of the delegation, Sidharth Bhatia, has spoken out about his team’s experiences in Sri Lanka. Introducing Sri Lanka as being “unique” in South Asia, he has amplified his ‘doubts about Sri Lanka having a “state-owned, controlled, managed or just state-encouraged media.”

Referring to his previous visits to Sri Lanka and having met with Sri Lankan government officials he, has perceived the impression that the government media had been on constant attack by the independent press in Sri Lanka, and under such circumstance, as per a Sri Lankan spokesman, “the government was only putting its voice forward to counter such attacks”.

The CPU delegation had organised their own course of planning carefully, the idea being, “ to work closely with newspapers editors, private and government owned equally”. The delegation’s local partners had been the Editor’s Guild, which was an assembly of editors, including the private as well as the government media.

The methodology used by the delegation had been to assign one journalist from the delegation with one newspaper group as agreed with respective editors and publishers. Emphasis had been to spend time in each newsroom “to observe and to find out but not to intrude or even suggest anything.”

The delegation had expected to see morning editorial conferences, and then afternoon news conferences at newsrooms but they had been ‘taken aback’ not to see any of such conferences taking place in any newsroom in Sri Lanka. “ There was no concept of conferences at all in any newspaper in the entire country. Even when I proposed, the editors had looked at me - a little blankly - which gave me the impression that the editors were upset because it appeared as I was trying to impede! ” amplified Bhatia at the Barbados conference

Subsequently, having agreed to confine delegates to newsrooms only they had accompanied local reporters to press conferences & to interview parliamentary candidates with a view to study what the local journalists had to print on the following day, merely to compare with what had actually taken place. According to the aim of the delegation, they had felt it was a germane issue. They were ‘looking for professional standards of good newspaper reporting; giving the news on top, making sure there was some attempt at being balanced and fair, and - most importantly in the larger context – whether readers got the best possible information to help make up their own minds about who to vote for.’

The problems they had come across in covering the elections were ‘systematic difficulties’ which the head of the delegation put it as “ inbuilt into the way the Sri Lankan media is structured”. Sidharth Bhatia has elaborated how the government and private media being at loggerheads by stating that, “ not only the government and opposition but with one another”! Polarisation was not based on ethics, issues or class issues but problems of political ideology and political difference and mostly on personal attacks such as allegation on the President’s eye injury during a bomb attack in December. He has emphasised.

Substantiating his statements he had quoted how newspapers had a front gossip items about another editor with graphical accounts of ‘how he was invited to such-an-such a party, and seen drinking fine French wine, and what he uttered to the host after 3-4 four glasses’, which he has considered as completely irrelevant. The ‘ Daily News caption : “ UNP dentist opens verbal sewer” has been highlighted and pointed out as a very ‘strange headline’ which reflected the personalised abuse which was termed as ‘over the top, but accepted as part of the legitimate election campaigning rhetoric’.

Even the Prime Minister’s remarks on Susanthika Jayasinghe running at Olympics wearing a yellow ribbon had not been spared for comments. Here the CPU delegation has commented and pointed a finger at a leading newspaper which wrote an editorial on it referring to Prime Minister’s comments as a “stupid”. What Bhatia has attempted to point out here was its irrelevance in the context of an election campaign however ‘ stupid’ it may have been! “ The independent media’s attack on the government was not just attack on policy or attack on the PA or on the whole against the Tamil Separatists but it was an attack on the President personally”,

The CPU delegation spent seventeen days and their mandate expired on the poling day. They have formulated an interim report having stayed two more extra days to see how the entire act was played out. Main points highlighted out of their observation on how Sri Lankan press handled the recent election on the basis of free media coverage included the way media handled economy as number one issue to focus on, as this was thought to be the most important issue for ordinary Sri Lankans. Then they were concerned about the ordinary voter who simply did not make it into the newspapers at all, barring the ‘ letters to the editor’ column. This was more so emphasised by stating that he ‘did not read a single decent story asking people who they would like to vote for, what they wanted from the next government, what their problems were with Candidate A or B. They called it a ‘ top down, rather bottom up, coverage’, and polarisation had been clearly seen on the coverage of smaller parties.

Other systematic weakness identified in the Sri Lankan media has been the lack of infrastructure and staff, and the unwillingness of publishers to commit funds to travelling extensively. “There were some places in which 19-year-old trainees did key political stories due to the lack of resources to commit senior staff” added the Leader of the CPU Mission to Sri Lanka.

‘Critical observation by outsiders will throw up extreme issues that newspapers within the system take for granted’. In this instance, it has helped them to point out certain deficiencies which might otherwise go unnoticed and ‘Sri Lanka is very very graceful about it’, endorses the head CPU delegation to Sri Lanka.