Increasing calls for media independence are part of the new political reality in the Arab world; such calls have been particularly strong regarding media coverage of elections. In response, some governments have tolerated the emergence of privately owned newspapers and television stations and have regulated the role of government-owned media in elections in order to ensure opportunities for candidates to present their platforms. But Arab media still suffer from partisanship and a lack of professionalism in many respects, and it is difficult to assess to what extent their coverage affects public opinion and voting.
This article stems from observation over the past two years by Arab civil society organizations of newspaper, television, and radio coverage of elections in Tunisia, Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt. In each case, observers assessed the overall space or time allocated to stories on candidates, the tenor (positive, negative, neutral) of the coverage, and whether (in the case of radio or television) candidates or representatives of competing parties had the opportunity to speak directly to the audience or were presented through the eyes of broadcasters.
On the whole, media coverage in Lebanon was the most balanced, due to diversity in private media ownership in comparison to other Arab countries, but it still suffered from shortcomings in terms of professionalism and objectivity. Meanwhile, media partisanship prevailed in Palestine, Egypt, and Tunisia to varying degrees, with media conduct in Palestine being the most balanced among the three. Media conduct during the 2005 presidential election in Egypt showed some positive developments in contrast to previous such contests, in which the media were wholly partial. In particular, new independent Egyptian newspapers distinguished themselves by professional, objective coverage of opposition candidates and platforms and greater criticism of the government than has been seen in half a century. In Tunisia, on the other hand, there was little attempt to conceal government control over public and private media, who blatantly favored government candidates.
Media in all four countries suffered from the lack of a legal framework regulating their role during elections. In some cases (such as Egypt's parliamentary elections), the electoral law is silent on the role of media coverage, in which case the matter is outside the authority of the electoral commission and therefore left to the Ministry of Information. In other cases, electoral laws contain loose, vague standards whose interpretation is left to administrative committees, which use them as tools of preemptive censorship to limit critical coverage of government candidates and electoral campaigns. All four countries also lack regulations for paid advertising, with no supervision of advertising expenditures and no unified price structure for campaign advertisements.
Government media in Egypt, Palestine, and Tunisia gave all candidates free air time to present their electoral platforms, an unprecedented and positive development. Still, the larger picture favored government candidates. First, outside the framework of this free time most public media outlets showed unconcealed partiality toward government candidates on news broadcasts and talk shows. Second, despite the quantitative balance in presentation of the candidates on public television, at the qualitative level coverage was characterized by monotony and repetition as well as deliberate avoidance of controversial issues. Third, for the most part electoral committees either had no way to stop media-related violations during election campaigns or did so inconsistently. In Egypt, for example, media and electoral standards were applied exclusively to registered parties, thereby handing an advantage to unregistered groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Subordination of media to politicians more than to professional standards was a problem observed in all four countries. Government officials are accustomed to treating media as institutions for political propaganda and readily use them to defame electoral opponents; for example Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as well as Hamas in Palestine, were heavily criticized in government media. The privately-owned Lebanese media tended to be subordinate to the interests of individual politicians or factions, and their coverage reflected the state of sharp polarization among factions. Most media outlets, especially television channels, lacked objectivity in their take on events. Furthermore, opportunities for media coverage of independent candidates were nearly nonexistent.
Among the useful lessons from the parliamentary elections in Palestine and Egypt is that political movements cannot rely on media to build constituencies. Despite the fact that secular movements had a greater presence in the Egyptian and Palestinian media and Islamic movements were widely defamed, the Islamists made impressive electoral gains in both countries.
Moataz El Fegiery is Programs Director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and a member of the Executive Committee of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network. This article was translated from Arabic by Kevin Burnham.