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Azerbaijan16 October 2008

Monitoring shows state media failed to cover election campaign properly

The public media provided hardly any coverage of the campaign for yesterday’s presidential election, Reporters Without Borders said at a news conference in Baku on 14 October, when it announced the findings of its four-week monitoring of the campaign coverage. The monitoring was part of a comprehensive “Media pluralism in the electoral period” project that is co-financed by the European Commission.

The state funded media monitored by Reporters Without Borders did not analyse the candidates’ programmes and did not organise any substantive, constructive debates. At the same time, the state media gave President Ilham Aliev, who was running for re-election, a massive amount of coverage, and therefore publicity.

The print media caused the most concern. The only political actors mentioned in the state print media were President Aliev, the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), the late President Heydar Aliev (the current president’s father) and the foundation that bear’s the late president’s name. As regards the elections, the state media focused on the preparations and operational aspects, neglecting the candidates and any possibility of debate.

“We regret that the campaign was completely absent from the state media,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The excessive space given to the government must have had an impact on how the electorate voted. It is deplorable that voters did not have access to real substantive debates among the candidates or to adequate reporting on the campaign, in order to be able to make an informed choice.”

TV stations

The state television broadcaster AzTV, which was not allowed to provide free-access programmes, had minimal election coverage. The amount of air time it allocated to candidates in its news programmes ranged from 0.01 to 0.08 per cent, while the CEC was given 4.46 per cent. Its news coverage was dominated by President Aliev, who filled 44.14 per cent of its air time, while the Heydar Aliev Foundation got 13.28 per cent and parliament got 3.30 per cent of the coverage. Substantial air time shares were also accorded to infrastructural development (26.09 per cent) and culture (18.84 per cent). The organisation of the elections and diplomatic activities got 9.42 per cent.

ITV, the other main public TV broadcaster, complied with a requirement to provide free-access time to the candidates. The amount of air time allocated to candidates in its news coverage ranged from 0.10 to 0.42 per cent (slightly fairer and more generous that AzTV). Its allocation to other political actors was much the same as that of the other broadcasters: foreign countries (12.73 per cent), CEC (6.88 per cent) and government ministries (5.18 per cent). Nearly half of its reporting (49.32 per cent) was not about any political actor.

Radio stations

Both the public and the state radios IR and AzR, gave the candidates some coverage in their news programmes but it was minimal. Both covered a range of subjects including human rights, inter-ethnic relations, anti-corruption measures, economic reforms and security issues. And both covered the standard range of political actors, paying most attention to government ministries (15.97 and 19.44 per cent respectively). IR gave 12.25 per cent to foreign countries and 11.27 to the CEC. AzR allocated 25.88 per cent of its air time to the president.

Print media

The state print media caused the most concern. The space accorded to the election was minimal, and was restricted to that offered to the candidates free of charge. The president was omnipresent, both in photos and text, taking up to 62.49 per cent of space in Bakinskii Rabochii, 56.89 per cent in Respublika, 57.12 per cent in Azerbaijan and 55 per cent in Halq. The late President Aliev and his foundation, parliament, the CEC and government ministers occupied most of the rest.

Conclusions

The monitoring team noted a shift in the news and current affairs coverage in the last two weeks of campaign, with more reports allocated to electoral preparations and, to a lesser degree, to the candidates’ activities. Nonetheless, the media failed to analyse the candidates’ track records, ask probing questions or compare platforms. Coverage of the opposition parties boycotting the election was minimal.

The public TV station ITV and the public radio station IR complied with CEC regulations requiring them to provide free-access programmes to the candidates. They were the only state broadcast media required to do this. The free-access programmes took the form of so-called “round tables” that started at 6: 50 p.m. on ITV and 9 p.m. on IR. The monitoring team found it remarkable that little use was made of the paid air time slots which, under CEC regulations, should have been available to the candidates. This, and the fact that one of the candidates made a complaint in connection with this provision, suggest that the regulations governing paid access should be clearer and more transparent, and that the internal guidelines for broadcasters should be more specific.

Both broadcast and print media provided coverage to the registered candidates, but in case of AzTV and all of the monitored dailies, the time and space allocation was minimal, ranging from 0.02 to 1.5 per cent. None of the candidates was particularly favoured, not even President Aliev, as a candidate. But this relative fairness was offset by the massive coverage Aliev received as the incumbent president. AzTV, for example, gave him 44.14 per cent of its air time and 68.84 per cent of its direct speech allocation.

The team concluded that the print media failed to adequately inform their readers about the campaign and the events in the country in general. The only political actors mentioned in the dailies were President Aliev, the CEC, the late President Heydar Aliev, the Heydar Aliev Foundation and foreign countries.

The public television station ITV and the public radio stations IR and AzR covered a broader range of political actors and topics in their news and current affairs programmes but they did not show any of the candidates speaking, unlike the privately-owned TV station ANS, which was monitored for comparison.

ITV had the largest share of news items in which no political actors were mentioned (49.32 per cent). In general, the broadcast media’s news reports were about the government, foreign affairs or Azerbaijan’s diplomatic activities. The media failed to use the election campaign period to discuss pressing social and political issues.

Recommendations

The team therefore recommends that:
-  The right of all candidates to fair and equitable access to the media should be spelled out in the Electoral Code
-  The rights of the candidates vis-à-vis the media, especially as regards complaint procedures, should be made more specific in the Electoral Code
-  The state media should exercise better editorial judgment and ensure that reports about the government and, in particular, the president, do not dominate coverage during the election campaign.
-  Reports on the organisational aspects of the election, although very important, should not replace coverage of the candidates’ activities during the campaign period
-  Reports on candidates’ activities be included in news and current affairs programmes
-  A more lively and probing format should be devised for free-access programmes, with a more active participation by journalists and a genuine debate among the candidates
-  There should be more probing and critical reporting on social and political affairs.

Background

The qualitative and quantitative monitoring of three TV stations, two radio stations and four state daily newspapers began on 17 September, the day that free access to the public media began for registered presidential candidates. The monitoring ended on 13 October.

The Reporters Without Borders team monitored radio and TV news and current affairs programmes, including talk-shows on social and/or political issues, from 3 to 10 p.m. every day. In the print media, the team looked at all articles on news and current affairs in Azerbaijan.

The campaign coverage and, specifically, the allocation of free-access programmes and space to the registered candidates were regulated by the Electoral Code and the CEC’s directives, based on article 47 of the constitution and on the mass media and advertising laws.

A CEC directive of 18 July states that the campaign begins 28 days before the election date and that the publicly-funded broadcast media shall provide at least three hours a week of free air time to the registered candidates. Similarly, the publicly-funded print media are required to provide free space to the candidates that is equivalent to at least 10 per cent of the total weekly editorial space before start of the campaign (para 3.6). Candidates must also be able to buy media space and air time. The privately-owned media may only provide paid access to candidates.

The CEC is supposed to create a special press team to supervise the media’s compliance. The rights of candidates and procedure to be applied in the event of complaints of inadequate media coverage are not spelled out, although the Electoral Code specifies that candidate complaints should be referred to the courts.

Monitored media

Broadcast media Az TV (state TV station), ITV (public TV station), AzR (state radio station), IR (public radio station) and ANS (privately-owned TV station)

Print media Halq (an Azerbaijani-language daily, published Tuesday to Saturday), Respublika (an Azerbaijani-language daily, Tuesday to Sunday), Azerbaycan (an Azerbaijani-language daily, Tuesday to Sunday), Bakinskii Rabochii (a Russian-language daily, Tuesday to Friday)

Candidates

The leaders of the main opposition groups are boycotting the elections. They are Isa Gambar of Musavat, Ali Kerimli of the Azerbaijan Popular Front and Sardar Jalaloglou of the Democratic Party. The opposition coalition Azadlig is therefore also boycotting the elections.

The CEC gave its permission for seven candidates to stand in the presidential election, after they each collected at least 40,000 signatures. Aside from President Ilham Aliev of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Partiyasi, they are Goudrat Hasangouliev of the United Popular Front, Fazil Gazanfaroglou of the Great Formation Party, Fouad Aliev of the Azerbaijan Liberal Democratic Party, Igbal Agazade of the Hope party, Hafiz Hadjiev of the Musavat Modern Party and Goulamhussein Alibeyli, an independent candidate.




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