Official media: The heated debate [Archives:2006/982/Reportage]

September 18 2006

“When a state monopolizes media outlets, it then takes hold of power and thus, talking about peaceful transfer of power becomes impossible,” asserts Mohammed Qahtan, official spokesman of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), “One method of democratic transition is when official media aren't monopolized by the authority.”

Opposition parties always complain that official media favor the ruling party, both during and after elections, and that equal opportunity isn't guaranteed in this regard.

Yemeni opposition parties, namely the JMP, have expressed concerns about the ruling party's official media control. During the pre-election period, they issued a series of reports to demonstrate official media violations, either because they couldn't get a chance to publicize their ideas or the ruling party still dominated official media.

Several workshops have been held to discuss neutrality of official media and election coverage and train people regarding these two issues. Election campaigning has begun and even reached a climax, but opposition parties still face the same problem.

On Aug. 25, General People's Congress (GPC) presidential candidate President Ali Abdullah Saleh criticized Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum (SCER) media coverage of an election rally for JMP presidential candidate Faisal Bin Shamlan. The SCER omitted portions of the rally, justifying that they contained “insult to another presidential candidate and democracy” and didn't comply with election law.

Officials at the SCER, which controls official media's election coverage, consider such coverage neutral and unbiased, not favoring one party over another. “This is the first competitive media . Official media equally broadcast the presidential candidates' rallies and platforms,” SCER Vice Chairman Abdullah Hussein Al-Aqwa insists, “Such coverage is unique and for the first time, we're experiencing a presidential competition such as that we're witnessing nowadays.”

He further states that for the first time, citizens everywhere can watch what's happening in the election process. “At first, some SCER members objected to broadcasting the presidential candidates' campaign rallies, but President Saleh insisted on it,” he noted.

According to Al-Aqwa, Arab citizens in general aren't accustomed to such coverage, adding that this is the Arab world's first competitive election process.

However, the JMP still maintains that the way its campaign rallies are broadcast is unfair, issuing numerous statements protesting official media. JMP officials allege that portions of Bin Shamlan's rallies deliberately are omitted, adding, “Official media delay broadcasting the rallies until the day after they were held.”

Also, “The Yemeni satellite channel removed important parts of Faisal Bin Shamlan's speech,” a JMP press release stated. For example, deleted portions of Bin Shamlan's speech reference the relationship between the United States and the current regime, which allows the U.S. to “kill Yemenis in their lands,” and noted the importance of changing the current regime.

JMP statements also claim that official media is biased in favor of GPC presidential candidate Saleh.

The Human Rights Information and Training Center (HRITC) criticized SCER and official media performance during the election campaigns at a Sept. 5 press conference in Sana'a.

During the press conference, HRITC revealed initial results of its supervision of SCER and official and private media performances during the campaigns' initial stages, pointing out that official media didn't differentiate between Saleh's tasks as the nation's president and his campaign rallies. HRITC also criticized official media for devoting considerable time to news promoting government's performance and not including news to stimulate the public's views.

“Citizens can make an informed choice during the election only if they receive accurate and balanced information, together with a variety of viewpoints, so as to be able to form their own opinions about candidates and parties,” Slovakian expert Marek Mracka maintains.

In his paper presented at an Aug. 2 symposium organized by HRITC, Mracka added that while all media should offer responsible coverage, it's particularly incumbent upon state media to observe even more rigorous criteria since they are funded publicly. Citizens pay fees, therefore, public media have legal and moral obligations to secure the general public's interest, not partisan or private interests.

In this regard, in his 1999 annual report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression announced several principles that should be respected in order to ensure a transparent, open and truly pluralistic election campaign in the media. The document set forth the following media obligations:

– During pre-election periods and in the interest of ensuring the most fully informed electorate possible, the state must ensure that media are given the widest possible latitude.

– State-owned (public) media must provide the public with fair and balanced reporting to enable them to make an informed and unfettered choice in electing their representatives.

– All state-owned and state-controlled media (including print media) should report campaigns in a fair, balanced and impartial manner.

– State-owned media mustn't be used as a propaganda communication tool for one political party or as an advocate for the government at the exclusion of all other parties and groups.

– A clear distinction should exist between news and press conferences related to functions of office and activities by members of the government, particularly if the member concerned is seeking election.