Media and civil society: key actors in democratic elections
Report by Corina Cepoi, Rapporteur
The Workshop 3A focused on the role of the media in elections It was chaired by Konstantyn Kvurt, Executive Director of Internews Ukraine, a media non-profit organisation working with journalists and media organisations. Robert Parsons from France 24 moderated the session. After the Issues Paper was presented with the key points for discussion the three panel speakers covered specific areas of concern. Pierre Garrone (Secretariat, Venice Commission) talked about international standards for media and governments referring to a report on the issue prepared by Owen Masters, an expert for the Venice Commission. Barbi Pilvre (member of NENO) focused on the experience of Estonia in the field of public media obligations and pre-election agreements promoted by non-profit organisations1. Ljiljana Zurovac (Press Council, Bosnia and Herzegovina) presented the experience of Bosnia & Herzegovina and its Press Council, a new structure aiming to serve as a self-regulatory mechanism for journalists and media organizations.2
An overview of the existing international standards developed by organizations such as the Council of Europe/Venice Commission, OSCE/ ODIHR, Venice Commission and others to provide guidance to the media during election time was given. The issues addressed include:
- Equal opportunities for electoral candidates in the media, especially the publicly funded media;
Guiding principles for the media during elections
The public media role was underlined as a crucial one in electoral periods. Publicly funded media outlets are normally the ones having the most detailed guidelines in elections and trying to adhere to them strictly. Of course, the situation differs from country to country but generally the advantages of the public media include:
- organisation and broadcasting of public debates;
Commercial media has fewer obligations with regards to the public as it is not financed from public taxes. Nonetheless, it needs to have general obligations during elections. The drawbacks of commercial media discussed at the session include:
- focus of the programming not on issues affecting people’s lives but mostly on personalities;
The need to regulate and monitor the media
Developed democracies have relatively smoothly operating self-regulating structures lead by Press Councils while new democracies in Europe are only starting to set-up such bodies. In general, self-regulatory mechanisms work when journalists are taking responsibility for their actions. Examples were provided when Press Councils worked with journalists to remind them of professional standards. Additionally, Press Councils remind the media that citizens should be at the centre of events and not only politicians. Similarly, politicians are educated about journalists’ roles in society and judges are empowered with international standards in order to make fair decisions in cases involving journalists.
Media monitoring is essential to observe how well the media are performing and to address any deficiencies of media coverage of elections. Media monitoring should cover all segments of an election campaign and should take a long-term approach which includes:
- the pre-election stage of a campaign;
Balanced reporting of an election campaign is possible and media monitoring can serve to highlight good practices as well as inadequate situations. Methodologies of media coverage of election have settled after years of trial and error and international and national monitoring teams should cooperate to share information and methodologies for the benefit of both parties. Both quantitative and qualitative methods are desirable, to be used in tandem with case studies analysing individual media behaviour.
The essential role of education
Good education standards can help to improve the coverage by the media of electoral candidates and elections. Professional journalists who follow high standards of reporting and ethical checklists can only emerge from high quality educational and training programmes. Long-term programmes, in formal and informal settings, are most effective for students of journalism and for working journalists. Teaching ethics is a key component of any education for journalists. Those journalists who have relevant advanced experience (from inside or outside the country) can be trained as trainers for less experienced colleagues. If proper education of students in journalism is set up and training of working journalists is organised there are more chances that reporters will make sound journalistic decisions in their work.
Investigative journalists can contribute to more interesting journalistic products in elections, so that all segments of society can access quality information from the media. Educating the public about media principles and consumption patterns, thereby highlighting that each society member is individually important could improve the electoral environment in general.
The key role played by new media
New media was at the centre of the debates of the 2008 Forum for the Future of Democracy which was devoted to electronic democracy. Nonetheless, as the new media becomes an instrument for political information, for citizens’ activism but also for public manipulation, it was also addressed extensively during this Workshop.
New media offer significant opportunities for alternative information in countries with restrictive regimes. While it can provide detailed information and offer widespread coverage, several groups of citizens might face problems of accessibility. Examples raised during the discussions include:
- Older voters who may not be in a position to follow technological progress because of lack of training and/or financial means;
New media illiteracy is also affecting many other sections of the population. People sitting in front of their computer have to assess whether the information is reliable and balanced or not. Despite the seemingly free flow of information on the internet, restrictive governments have found methods of controlling it via censors or even through cooperation with providers. While media education courses exist and citizens can learn how to weigh-up various types of media information, such training is not readily available with regard to new media.
The impact of new media on traditional media is still unclear. Whilst the issue is being debated, traditional media are proving to be slow to respond to the new challenges. In the meantime, citizens’ are taking the matter into their own hands by covering issues which traditional media misses or in zones where the mainstream media does not fully operate.
The fragile position of the media affects the free flow of information during elections and beyond. Journalists’ rights need to be respected so that they can freely access public events, report on issues of public interest and are not prevented from raising controversial issues. Attacks on journalists are pervasive violations affecting not only the profession itself but also the public at large.
Reinforcing the role of women in the media
Special attention was paid to the issue of women in the media and the need for a gender-balanced media. Regardless of the fact that most working journalists are women, men dominate media management3. Monitoring shows that the images, sources of information and issues covered by media are not presenting a gender-balanced view. Instead, media content is dominated by one-sided images of reality leaving aside many issues affecting women in society.
1 See NENO pre-election manifesto:www.ngo.ee/28222.
2 See Press Council of B&H website with some information in English: www.vzs.ba/en/.
3 Information obtained from a report prepared for the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) 2007 Congress.