The Media Development Centre (MDC), un¬der the auspices of the USAID Programme for Strengthening of Independent Media in the Republic of Macedonia and the Project for Media Legal Reform and Responsible Media, during the 2014 Presidential Elections and the 2014 Early Parliamentary Elections, conducted a monitoring of the work of the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) and the State Electoral Commission (SEC). MDC’s monitoring team followed the sessions of AVMS and SEC, with focus on those points on the agendas referring to broadcast media and the electoral process.
The monitoring activities aimed to provide a clear picture of the manner in which AVMS and SEC implement the provisions of the Electoral Code (EC) and the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (LAMS) that directly regulate the media coverage of elections and election campaigns, but also to gain a picture about the quality of the legal provisions, whether they are good or if there is room for improvement, and their influence on the work of the media during elections.
In view of the importance and the role played by the public broadcasting service, a special segment of the monitoring programme was dedicated to the Macedonian Radio and Television (MRT).
The Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services made an effort to overcome the omission of the Electoral Code, in the provisions on equal presentation in the news programmes of MRT for non-parliamentary and new political parties with a recommendation to the public broadcasting service to secure additional five minutes of airtime in its news programmes for the presentation of candidates not covered by the provisions of the Electoral Code.
MDC also believes that the provisions of the Electoral Code, the definitions for the terms “position” (the ruling parties) and “opposition” (in Article 2, paragraph 1, indents 9 and 10), and several provisions on media presentation (Article 76a, paragraphs 2 and 3) are not sufficiently precise and leave room for different interpretations. In view of the above, and the fact that all political entities need to be provided, by Law, with a fair and equal treatment in the electoral process, MDC proposes that changes and amendments are made to the Electoral Code.
The analysis of the Reports from the monitoring of media coverage in the programmes of the public broadcasting services and commercial media shows that AVMS applied a selective approach to the implementation of the monitoring Methodology. The monitoring report was dominated by quantitative elements, while the qualitative analysis of media coverage was reduced to bare minimum, especially after the first round of Presidential Elections. There was little, if any, analysis of the overall tone of reporting of the media; the frames they use in the reporting on individual political entities; the manipulative use of video and sound footage and images; the choice of words used to report on political entities and in the presentation of information; the respect for and adherence to professional standards of journalism; the presence of hate-speech in the coverage; etc. The absence of in-depth and detailed qualitative analysis of the media coverage and the total domination of quantitative elements in the Report result in an incomplete, distorted picture of the manner in which the media reported on the campaign and the 1st Round of Presidential Elections.
An additional cause of concern is the insistence of the President of the AVMS Council, without any basis in the Methodology, that a paragraph should be added to the first report referring to Telma TV and 24 Vesti TV, which amounted to an arbitrary politically motivate attack on the two broadcasters.
MDC believes that any form of selective monitoring, excluding the qualitative elements, creates a distorted picture about the media reporting and coverage of elections, and any labelling of media outlets, regardless of whether it was done in an official report or was a case of an individual statement of a member of AVMS Council, and constitutes a form or direct pressure and attack on the media and the freedom of information.
MDC recommends to AVMS, in monitoring of future elections, to pay greater attention to the analysis of the qualitative elements of the media coverage. Such an approach should ensure a more objective picture of the overall media coverage of the election processes. Also, MDC believes that the members of AVMS Council should refrain from statements and activities that constitute attacks, attempts at political labelling, or any form of pressure on the broadcasters.
MDC believes that the avoiding of qualitative analysis and the emphasis on quantitative indicators by AVMS, as well as the direct and clear conclusions presented by OSCE/ODIHR regarding MRT’s coverage of the election process, indicate that MRT remains biased in favour of the government and that is has not yet started functioning as a service for the citizens, i.e. a modern, impartial and professional public broadcasting service.
AVMS started a procedure for violation of campaign silence rules against 24 Vesti TV, after it aired a statement by the mayor of Kumanovo, who was called in for an informative talk at the local police station on the day before Election Day.
MDC believes that this is a case of excessively strict implementation of the provisions of the Electoral Code (Article 76b, paragraph 76-б) which constitutes a restriction of the freedom of expression and principles of timely and objective reporting. MDC believes that there is a need to review the provisions of Article 76b of the Electoral Code to provide a more precise definition of the campaign silence period, and will allow the media to inform the citizens, during the campaign silence period, of all matters and issues of public interest.
At the same time, a public debate is necessary to discuss the very purpose of the cam¬paign silence period and its influence on the freedom of the media and freedom of information, especially in the context of new technologies, which render the observation of the campaign silence rules increasingly difficult and impossible.
AVMS also filed misdemeanour charges against Alfa TV, AlsatM TV, Kanal 5 TV, Sitel TV and Telma TV, for general disrespect of the provisions of Article 75, paragraph 1 of the Electoral Code which prescribes that the broadcasters shall cover the elections in a fair, balanced and impartial manner. The Electoral Code prescribes fines of €3000 to €5000, to be paid in Denars, for those violations. In spite of the fact that AVMS’s Report clearly indicates that some broadcasters, for example Telma TV, were borderline (im)partial, while Alfa TV, AlsatM TV, Kanal 5 TV and Sitel TV were openly biased in favour of the ruling coalition, the prescribed fines are equal for all.
MDC proposes that the provisions of Article 181 of the Electoral Code should be amend¬ed to ensure graded sanctions for violations of Article 75, paragraph 1 of the Electoral Code. Those changes should provide for greater fairness of sanctions.
In these Elections, SEC faces several questions and dilemmas related to the issue of presentation of candidates on the internet, as well as the question of its competence to rule on such matters as the central body that is charged with the proper conduct of elections. Other emerging questions arising from MDC’s monitoring activities include the question if social networking sites should be considered media and whether the publication of contents on the internet during the campaign silence period constitutes a violation of the campaign silence rules?
In view of the above, MDC believes that an inclusive and wide public and expert debate is necessary on the issue whether, in what manner and to what extent the internet presentation should be regulated.
Over the coming period of time, MDC will prepare a set of recommendations of electoral legislation referring to media electoral presentation, which will result of a process of consultations and analysis that will include experts and scholars in the fields of electoral law and media law.
The report is available, as PDF document, on the link below:
2014_MDC Monitoring elections 2014 – Implementation of electoral code’s provisions on media electoral coverage