By Chandani Kirinde
The EU Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) said yesterday that the Presidential Election was largely free of violence and technically well-managed, but that unregulated campaign spending, abuse of State resources and media bias did not provide a level playing field for all candidates.
Presenting the mission’s preliminary findings at a press briefing, Chief Observer Marisa Matias said while the campaign on the ground was largely peaceful and calm, the playing field in the traditional and online media was affected by instances of bias, hate speech and disinformation.
“This trend was further affected by the misuse of State resources by both frontrunners and the absence of campaign finance regulations,” she said.
While fully endorsing the preliminary findings and conclusions of the observation mission, Isabel Santos, the head of a delegation of Members of the European Parliament, said while they observed a well-organised and peaceful elections, action is needed to reinforce the legal framework, in particular regarding campaign finance transparency, and to level the playing field for candidates and parties in the media.
“It was very moving to see Sri Lankans side-by-side exercising their democratic right, irrespective of their origin, religion or social status. This is a sign that they want to work together. Politicians and leaders need to understand this and act to unite the country,” she said.
Matias added that the participation of Sri Lankans was very high. “This was their day to exercise their right to democratic choice, and I hope that our observation has in some way contributed to them confidence in the process.”
On Election Day, EU EOM observers visited 329 polling stations and more than 25 counting centres.
The mission will remain in the country until mid-December, observing any post-Election complaints and appeals. Around two months after the completion of the process, Matias will return to Sri Lanka to present the mission’s final report, with recommendations for future improvements to the electoral process.
The EU EOM was invited to observe the election by the Election Commission of Sri Lanka and undertakes its work in accordance with the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation.
Given below are excerpts of the EU-EOM preliminary statement.
Lack of campaign finance regulation contributes to an uneven playing field. Political party and campaign financing remain unregulated. There are no limits on contributions or spending, and no disclosure requirements, including of the origin of funding, reinforcing an uneven playing field. Candidates are required only to declare their assets, but financial sanctions for non-compliance are insignificant.
Across all districts, EU observers noted the high-visibility campaigns on the ground of the two most prominent candidates, underscoring a considerable gap in financial expenditure and resources between them and other contestants.
With no limits on campaign advertising, campaign coverage in traditional and online media was highly monetised. Only a few other candidates, namely Anura Dissanayaka, Ajantha Perera, Mahesh Senanayake and Battaramulle Seelarathana Thero ventured into paid television and newspapers adverts.
The SLPP’s spending online was in excess of any other campaign. The party campaigned via five custom-made mobile applications. It dominated across all categories of Google adverts and placed no fewer than 500 adverts on Facebook, including by third-parties.
Total spending cannot be known, as Google shares no data, but Facebook’s ad library offers some disaggregated estimates that do not factor in expenses by third-party sites. Facebook cited the absence of legally binding disclosure requirements for service providers. Such a lack of transparency and accountability in campaign finance contravenes international standards and interferes with voters’ right to make an informed choice.
Private and State media bias in favour of the two main candidates significantly limited access to news outlets for most candidates. The media environment in Sri Lanka is diverse, with numerous outlets. The market is characterised by a high concentration of ownership divided largely along political lines and significantly influencing content. The EC has constitutional power to issue guidelines to all media, State and private, but only State media have a legal duty to comply. The EC organised several meetings with all media, seeking their cooperation. On various occasions the EC Chairman publicly warned all media to comply with impartiality requirements. Nonetheless, the EC came under strong criticism from various candidates and civil society organisations over a perceived lack of action against unbalanced political broadcasting by private media.
State media adhered to their legal requirement to allocate free airtime to candidates. However, the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation decided to air candidates’ addresses on Channel Eye, which is a less popular entertainment channel, thereby limiting public outreach.
There were no televised debates. The media covered the campaign through various formats, but mostly newscasts and paid adverts. However, news coverage lacked in-depth and critical editorial analysis of candidates and their manifestos, in particular in the broadcast media.
A coordinated distortion of the information environment online undermined voters to form opinions free from manipulative interference. 34% of Sri Lankans have access to the internet and use smartphones to send and receive information. The digital literacy rate is low, leaving the online discourse prone to manipulation.
Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression is not explicitly extended to online content, and in the absence of all-encompassing privacy and data protection legislation, parties do not declare their use of voters’ personal data, which is collected by mobile applications or campaign staff. Such practice is at odds with international standards. Among the social media platforms, Facebook is the prime contributor to the crafting of political narratives in the public space and to setting the electoral agenda.
The EC had only an informal understanding with Facebook on the removal of hate speech and disinformation. Citizen observers also reported harmful content online to the EC and Facebook. However, Facebook’s reluctance to act, coupled to high levels of anonymous, sponsored content, enabled a mushrooming of hateful commentary and trumped-up stories that capitalised on long-standing ethnic, religious and sectarian tensions.
It continued also during the campaign silence, when Facebook removed only a small proportion of such paid content. This was detrimental to the election and at odds with international standards.
Coordinated dissemination of outright false and/or demeaning information presented in various formats and across digital platforms dwarfed credible news threads. Suppression of credible news entailed the use of sponsored content on Facebook and coordinated sharing of political memes that sow discord and political gossip, both of which served as a source for multiple posts on political support group pages.