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Media experts call for proactive interventions to promote electoral integrity

Media plays a critical role in defending democracies everywhere, and in 2024, considered by many to be a year of elections, Sri Lanka’s media will be tested for the ability to hold authorities accountable and for keeping the public informed of facts that help people make informed choices, said the Ambassador for the Netherlands in Colombo, Bonnie Horbach, at a recent gathering of journalists in Colombo.

Ambassador Horbach spoke of the inalienable role of journalists in speaking truth to power, holding authorities accountable while overcoming the new challenge of disinformation to keep the public well-informed. “In my view, there are not only the recognized three pillars of democracy: there’s two more – the media and civil society. The information landscape impacted often by the proliferation of disinformation. With the emergence of social media, there is increased space for free expression, and at the same time, the media landscape has become both complex and challenging to navigate. There can be the extensive use of technology and an increase of deep fakes, all of which can undermine the integrity of elections. This highlights the role and relevance of mainstream media in the promotion of truth,” she said, speaking at a discussion organized by the Centre for Investigative Reporting (CIR) to examine the role of media in promoting electoral democracy, held on March 6 at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute.

The ambassador recalled a time when there was no requirement to factcheck information. A decade ago, factchecking was not an integral part of the information landscape and the newsrooms functioned with relative ease. But this is no longer the case. Today there is a need for separating fact from fiction. There is also a need to help the public develop the capacity to do the same. Mainstream media today has a far greater responsibility; there is a need to remind the authorities of their social contract and to create plural media spaces for people to call for accountability and transparency. Media today has a far more responsible role to play in restoring public’s faith in democracy.” she added.

Four experts joined the panel discussion highlighted both opportunities and challenges before the media industry when covering elections, including media capacity, ownership, evolving political situation, role of public institutions such as the Election Commission and the Department of Police and the role of technology in future elections.

The panel of experts comprised of Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya, Advisor for Asia Pacific International Media Support (IMS) and Advisor of Factum, Asoka Dias, Director of MTV/ MBC, Jamila Husain, Editor in Chief of Daily Mirror and Harshana Silva, Lead Fact-Checker and Specialist in Countering Disinformation of Hashtag Generation.

Dr. Ranga Kalansooriya said the media and elections are inextricably linked just as much as elections and social media are interconnected today. He noted that the media will have to play a more dynamic role in educating voters and encouraging people to cast their vote given the increasing political disengagement. He said the voters are disenchanted both with the electoral system and the politicians and to protect electoral integrity, there was a need to increase the level of public trust in the electoral process itself.

Jamila Husain, Editor-in-Chief, Daily Mirror highlighted the need to educate the public in selecting candidates capable of delivery. She said there was no erosion in editorial independence yet and urged the public to play a more proactive role in questioning the authorities and demanding election manifestos be implemented.  

The process must be transparent and serve the collective needs of all sections of society, specially the marginalized, said Hashtag Generation’s Harshana Silva. He noted that recently introduced laws such as the Online Safety Law would negatively impact the public and silence dissenting voices due to fear of reprisal. He said this was a tactic of authoritarian regimes and despite the increase influence and reach of social media, there is a chilling effect that prevents robust online engagement due to the recent law.

Asoka Dias of MTV/MBC said new challenges will emerge during future elections with technology playing a bigger role including campaigning and influence operations. He noted that the media should understand that there are proxy candidates and parties and understanding the reality of the political landscape can contribute towards more nuanced reporting. He noted that it would also be the first time Sri Lanka holds elections as a bankrupt nation and said, reporting too will have new frameworks as a result.

Manjula Gajanayake, Executive Director, Institute for Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES) moderated the discussion.

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