Elections and the media in emerging democracies

A STRONG CORRELATION EXISTS between a free media environment and the degree that we can call an election democratic. That is, assessing an election’s outcome not by who wins but if the process itself is free and fair. A poll cannot be considered open and fair unless the media in a country are able to report on all aspects of the election cycle without interference.

By Anthony Clive Bower

The media help promote political liberalization by shedding light on issues the public needs to be aware of in politics and about candidates. It can have a galvanizing effect on voters as diversity in the message bearers and different ways of message delivery can cut through voter apathy. It adds to a country’s accountability by constantly assessing where politicians stand on their promises and pointing out what needs improvement. The media help foster and promote democratic debate by providing a platform to different factions.

The following two legal guarantees protect the role of media in elections: Article 7.8 of the Copenhagen Document (1990) states “to ensure that the will of the people serves as the basis of the authority of government, the participating states will provide that no legal or administrative obstacle stands in the way of unimpeded access to the media on a nondiscriminatory basis for all political groupings and individuals wishing to participate in the electoral process.”

Voting at elections in Eastern Europe

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Standards on Democratic Elections further defines the role of media in elections in terms of best practices, in that “all candidates and political parties must be provided sufficient access to media in order for voters to become adequately informed of views, programs and opinions of the electoral contestants; the formula for allocating media access among candidates and political parties must be fair, understandable and capable of objective application; coverage by state supported or sponsored media must be neutral, unbiased, and on a nondiscriminatory basis.”

Although these two documents might enshrine the ultimate standard for media in elections, in transitional democracies, media freedom is as much of a work in progress as the political systems themselves.

The evolution from a more restrictive political system to a more open and inclusive one doesn’t happen seamlessly. This is pronounced in the media sector, where central control of the message and its means of delivery was the standard. Instead of the full spectrum of election and political coverage enjoyed in western democracies, there are degrees of freedom in transitional democracies.

The recent elections of three ex-Soviet Republics—Georgia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan—are especially good examples to explore.

Georgia saw a steady progression in media freedom after the 2003 Rose Revolution that culminated in the election of current President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004. However, a political regression followed as early elections for president and parliament confirmed the dominance of the United National Movement. Although Georgia currently boasts many independent television stations and an active blogosphere critical of the president and the government, legitimate complaints about government pressure and censorship remain.

National broadcasters such as ltnedi Television were forcibly acquired by pro-government elements and now follow a pro-administration line. The top-rated and formerly independent Rustavi 2 was seized by the government after the Rose Revolution and maintains a strongly pro-government position. Georgian Public Broadcasting (GPB), another popular station, is state-owned, though its programming is fair and reason ably balanced. Maestro television and Channel 25 are struggling to expand their viewer-ship and commercial sponsorship in light of their independence and critical views of the government.

The January 2008 presidential election was called early mainly because the president was seeking to shore up his support base after a violent crackdown on peaceful street protests in November 2007, which resulted in Imedi, Rustavi 2 and a third opposition channel, Kavkasia, all being taken off the air for their criticism of the government’s actions. The subsequent presidential election of Jan. 5, 2008, resulted in a strong affirmation of President Saakashvili and a five-year mandate for his leadership. This election garnered a somewhat mixed review from international observers.

In May 2010, which featured diverse coverage of the elections on a national and local scale, including the first-ever live, televised candidate debate for the post of Tbilisi mayor, hosted by GPB. The unscripted debate, which included criticism of the incumbent from the ruling party, was evidence of a slightly more progressive media climate. The election, in turn, received higher marks from the OSCE.

By comparison, media freedom in Tajikistan, another ex-Soviet Republic with a less prolific democratic resume than Georgia, has been severely wanting. The country has not held an election rated “fair” by western observers since independence in 1991.

The parliamentary elections in February failed to meet most internationally held standards. The lack of independent television channels outside of the main state broadcaster, TV Tajikistan, and the absence of balanced coverage of candidates and political parties has contributed to the general lack of engagement in the country.

The main political opposition, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), took advantage of the limited free airtime offered by state television. However, negative coverage before, during and after the election and a subsequent closure of its printing press by the government has damaged the party’s reputation and limited its effectiveness in the electoral arena. Other opposition parties, though not as strong, faced similar hurdles.

Not surprisingly, the OSCE stated “the parliamentary elections failed to meet many key OSCE commitments contained in the OSCE 1990 Copenhagen Document and other international standards for democratic elections.”

Kyrgyzstan is a case where marked improvements in media freedom and electoral legitimacy happened in a short period. The 2009 presidential poll, won by deposed former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was described by the OSCE as failing to meet key commitments for democratic elections. The role of the media was a key part of the judgment because “the broadcast media gave limited and unbalanced coverage of election contestants, and the state media displayed a strong bias in favor of the incumbent. It did not provide voters with sufficient and diverse information from which to make an informed choice.”

However, the Oct. 10 parliamentary elections, stemming from events that led to Bakiyev’s overthrow, were rated highly by western observers, as were the openness of the media and the ability of voters to obtain information about the elections via the media. Kyrgyz state television channels televised live debates with unfettered commentary by audience members.

Although appearing chaotic on the surface, they were effective at promoting voter confidence by sorting out responsive candidates from old-guard counterparts.

The difference a year can make is astounding, though no one thinks that the level of openness in Kyrgyzstan can be taken for granted as the standard moving forward. Much work remains to be done to consolidate the gains made and safeguard them against the regression seen once already after the 2005 Tulip Revolution.

It is obvious from these case studies that media openness goes hand-in-hand with the degree of political liberalization. That emerging democracies often fail to grasp that debate is a critical factor for a country’s political maturity. Dissent is healthy. Countries that come to terms with this and strive to support an open, independent media are ultimately stronger for it. There is no perfect model, but one key assessment tool in determining how democratic an election will be is to monitor media coverage prior to an electoral event. Ideally there will be diverse coverage in terms of form and content, and the number of outlets covering the election should grow as election day approaches.

Reprinted from Global Journalist Winter 2010

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