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Friday, April 10, 2015

Airtime allocation for campaign messaging in Ethiopia and the developed world

By Belayneh Akalu April 09, 2015
The world has come a long way from the days of small city-states where direct elections were very much plausible. With a small population size and considerably smaller administrative units, the historically acclaimed Greek city-states made it possible for citizens to come out and vote directly on whom they want to assume public power. That act is noted as the basis for modern day democratic elections that have become the order of the day all over the world. After drifting from traditional systems of democratic governance due to colonization and subsequent ventures by African, Asian and Latin American states to pursue the Western model of governance that they adopted from their colonizers, regular elections have increasingly become the norm in these regions. With the expansion of urban centers both in physical and population size within the couple of millennia since the Greek city states, however, the former system of direct election has become obsolete. The replacement is referred to as representative election. With bigger sized urban and rural centers that support a considerably large amount of people, the issue of addressing the electorate has increasingly become more daunting. The communication of an electoral candidate’s stands on a number of cross cutting issues considered to be of high regard within a constituency has necessitated the use of mass media. Mass media also help determine which issues are vital for the electorate and what stands constituents need from a potential representative. Accordingly, mass media have become an integral part of electoral campaigns all around the world. 2 Ethiopia is nowadays preparing for a fifth of such elections since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) assumed state power in 1991. With only six weeks remaining until the election, various parties and independent candidates are already left with a small section of the second part of their campaigns. The campaign time already elapsed saw an extensive use of the mass media by the incumbent and opposition parties. That is believed to have provided voters with valuable information determining which party or independent candidate to choose. As anyone who is familiar with Ethiopian politics knows, however, parties and independent candidates alike are heavily constrained on resources. Covering the cost of mass media on their own would, hence, be an obstacle to their efforts to reach out to people. It is with this consideration that the Ethiopian government has allocated the incumbent and opposition parties along with independent candidates with free air time on the mass media operating in the country. Accordingly, this article aims to make a comparative analysis of mass media usage by parties and independent candidates in the developed world (the United States and Europe) with that of the existing conditions in Ethiopia. 

United States of America
Political campaign advertising is the use of an advertising campaign through the media to influence political debate, and ultimately, voters. These ads are designed by political consultants and political campaign staff. An article on regulation of campaign advertising states, while there have been some increases in regulation of campaign finance, there is generally little regulation of political advertising content. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 addressed the issue of "soft money” or money contributed through political action committees, raised the legal limits of hard money 3 that could be raised for any candidate, and set limits on what funds could be spent on election broadcasts, but it did not mandate verifiability in political campaign advertising. The article states, as of this time, there is no pending legislation addressing this issue. Currently the Federal Communications Commission requires that the contracts for political ads shown on broadcast stations be posted online, but the agency is considering a proposal to expand that disclosure requirement to other platforms, including radio and cable. The United States has a very free market for broadcast political messaging. As has increasingly become the case in the United States, candidates raise hundreds of millions of dollars to finance their campaigns. Predictably, those who raise more money tend to win a lot more than those who do not. That pushes the symbiotic relation between politicians and the corporate system even further as the former depend heavily on corporate funds to advance their career goals in exchange for conducive policies and promises to corporations. Accordingly, the race between politicians is increasingly becoming that of fund raising instead of crisp policies. The fund raised by Barack Obama is the highest in U.S election history propelling him to the Presidency of the country although no black man ever assumed that position. 

European Union
In most EU Member States campaign advertising is heavily regulated. In the EU, many countries do not permit paid-for TV or radio advertising for fear that wealthy groups will gain control of airtime making fair play impossible and distort the political debate in the process. 4 In some Member States, the United Kingdom and Ireland for example, party political advertisements on broadcast media (known as Party Political Broadcasts) are restricted to specific circumstances such as political party conferences and a limited time period before a General Election. In both the United Kingdom and Ireland, paid advertisements are forbidden, though political parties are allowed a small number of party political broadcasts in the run up to election time. In the latter instance, political parties are allowed specific time slots on the broadcast media in which the advert may be aired. These are limited in time, offered to all registered parties and must be aired at times during the schedules that have similar levels of viewership. Furthermore, a moratorium on all election coverage is mandated on the day of the ballot. Some Member States regulate the posting of election posters at both national and municipal level. In Ireland there are restrictions on the erection of election posters which mandate the time period after an election by which time the poster must be removed, with fines as a potential sanction. Some local councils have voted to ban the placement of election posters, citing the cost of removal and the waste generated. Many municipalities in France restrict the placement of election posters to specific areas, often erecting stands specifically for that purpose. Campaigns can include several different mediums (depending on local law). The time span over which political campaign advertising is possible varies greatly from country to country, with campaigns in the United States lasting a year or more to places like the UK and Ireland where advertising is restricted by law to just a short period of weeks before the election. Social media has become very important in political messaging, making it possible to message larger groups of constituents with very little physical effort or 5 expense, but the totality of messaging through these channels is often out of the hands of campaign managers. 

Japan distinguishes between party advertisements and candidate advertisements. There are few restrictions on political advertisements made by parties. One restriction is that party advertisements cannot mention specific candidates. Candidate advertisements have greater limitations and are paid for by the government. Candidates are not allowed to purchase their own advertisements. The number and type of candidate advertisements are also limited, including the size of newspaper advertisements, and length of television and radio advertisements. Japanese election law discourages negative campaign advertising directed at other candidates, parties, or political organizations. Campaign advertisements can only be broadcast during the two-week official campaign period and are closely monitored for violations of election law. 

Australia has five advertising campaign principles. First, campaigns should be relevant to government responsibilities. Secondly, campaign materials in advertising should be presented in an objective, fair and accessible manner and be designed to meet the objectives of the campaign. Facts presented should be accurate and verifiable. The third principle states that campaign materials should be objective and not directed at promoting party interests. Campaign materials must not mention the party in government by name, or directly attack or scorn the views, policies, or actions of others. Fourth, campaigns should be justified and undertaken in an efficient, effective and relevant manner. The last principle states that campaigns must comply with legal requirements and procurement policies and procedures. This is 6 particularly important in respecting laws with broadcasting and media. When broadcasting political advertisements during an election period, the broadcaster must give all parties contesting the election a reasonable opportunity to have election matter broadcast during the election period. This does not need to be done for free. Sponsors or current affair programs must be identified during political advertising. While Australia does not exactly have a right to free speech, they have an implied freedom of political communication. There are regulations on the format and presentation of political advertising, but little regulation on the content.

According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the key role of broadcasters is to inform potential voters on issues, political parties and candidates during an election period. This means ensuring equitable airtime for all candidates on each broadcast network. 6.5 hours of prime programming should be available for the purchase by all parties. On-air personalities running as a candidate in a provincial or federal election are required to halt any on-air duties as soon as his or her candidacy is announced or the election is called. According to Elections Ontario, there are restrictions regarding when political advertising may be aired and restrictions on the rates broadcasters and publishing facilities can charge for said advertising. 

The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) website provides numerous articles dealing with elections and the media. One of these articles states that the mass media should differentiate reports on election related news and personal commentary. The article further states that mass media reports on election should focus on the “truth and real information.” It states 7 that personal commentary on the issue shall be reflected on the editorial section. However, it strictly notes, “the public media cannot reflect on any comments which support or oppose any political party or deputy in their editorials.” It further goes on to say that the mass media should work any election related report without any discrimination among political parties or deputies. Even though these ideas are presented in the website, their primary source is the code of conduct for the mass media and journalists on the manner of reporting about elections regulation number 6/2010. It states about impartiality in detail. The regulation proclaims the responsibility of the journalists, the responsibility of the mass media, the responsibility of the political parties and other related issues. The Ethiopian campaign financing and media use is quite different from all the above examples cited above. Cognizant of the weak financial conditions of political parties in the country, the government provides financial assistance and free airtime on public media for their campaigns. This act is supposed to help out political parties reach out to constituencies in all corners of the country and raise popular awareness on the policy packages they have in store to advance the peace and development in the country. In a move that can be taken as overwhelmingly accommodative of the resource gaps of political parties in the country, the Ethiopian government goes a long way to ensure that pluralist democratic system does not suffer as a result of access to resources. The body responsible for this duty, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), accordingly provides financial support, capacity building and awareness creating trainings. The Board has also allocated free mass media airtime in collaboration with the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority (EBA). 8 As has been the case in previous national elections, the 57 political parties participating in the upcoming elections have already launched their mass media campaigns since February 22, 2015. The parties have been allocated airtime in public radio and television stations and columns on newspapers to spread their messages. The allocation was made on the basis of the number of candidates political parties have fielded (40 percent), number of seats in parliament and regional councils (40 percent), the number of women candidates (10 percent) whereas the 10 percent is equally apportioned among all political parties. The allocation of finances is also made along the same criteria. The campaigns is being conducted through 16 radio (5 of them are commercial), five TV stations and 11 newspapers in seven local languages. A total of 600 hours of radio and television airtime and 700 columns of space on newspapers are allocated for election campaigns. According to the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority, the airtime and column space allocated for the campaign is worth over 128 million Birr. EBA recently notified that the airtime and column space allotted for political parties has been increasing in every election with a view to providing them with ample media outlets to promote their ideologies and assist the public get enough information. Accordingly, the air time allocated in the 2005 and 2010 general elections for political parties' campaign was 127 hours and 557 hours respectively. Various media quoted the head of Public Relations of the EBA as saying: “Ethiopia is the only country that provides free airtime on state media for political parties to carry out election campaigns.” In addition to the amenities provided to political parties courtesy of Ethiopian taxpayers, political parties can come up with various ways of raising funds to advance 9 their reach of the people. Therefore, one can clearly see that the policy frame work for political parties is very conducive. Despite an optimistic outlook on their use of media at the start of the electoral campaign, political parties in the country do not seem to walk the walk in reaching out to the people. Representatives of numerous political parties expressed their conviction of making the most of the free airtime and newspaper columns. “We are ready to properly use both print and electronic media during the election campaign due to begin next Monday” heads of the parties told reporters. President of the New Generation Party (NGP), Asfaw Getachew, said that his party is ready to carry out the election campaign using Amharic, Oromifa, Afar, and Somali languages. Public Relations Head and Deputy Chairperson of the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (MEDREK), Tilahun Endeshaw, said that in addition to using the free airtime and print space on state media, the party is ready to use leaflets and conferences for the campaign. He said the party will use Amharic, Oromifa, Tigrigna and Sidamigna languages during the campaign. MEDREK has already fielded a total of 1,186 candidates across the country (303 candidates for seats in the parliament and 883 candidates for regional council), according to Tilahun. Medrek is a coalition of four political parties: the Oromo Federalist Congress, Union of Tigrayans for Democracy and Sovereignty - Arena, Sidama Liberation Movement and Ethiopian Social Democracy – Southern Unity Party. Deputy Chairperson and Election Affairs Head of Semayawi Party, Sileshi Feyissa, said that his party will carry out the campaign using Amharic, Oromifa and English languages. According to Sileshi, his party has fielded 10 400 candidates throughout the country, including 23 candidates in Addis Ababa. Some 4 of the candidates fielded in Addis Ababa are females. In an interview with one of the weekly newspapers, Desta Tesfaw, head of public and external relations of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) stated: “We will employ all possible means including public gatherings and peaceful rallies, door to door campaigns, the social media, banners and posters among others.” “We will use funds at our disposal which includes members’ contribution and if need be, we will conduct fund raising activities.” An assessment by the Ethiopian Broadcast Authority (EBA), however, indicates that parties have not fully utilized the opportunities provided to them. According to the EBA, both the free airtime and the newspaper columns allotted have not been fully utilized by the parties. The EBA disclosed that the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has used 98 percent of its allotted air time on the radio, 100 percent on television and 86 percent in the print media. EPRDF partner parties, on the other hand, have used only 51 percent of the time allocated on the radio and 33 percent on television. Opposition political parties have used 37 percent of the time allocated on the radio, 53 percent on television and 2 percent in the print media. Although the lack of utility of the free airtime and newspaper columns is staggeringly huge in the case of opposition political parties, the lower rate (86%) of utilization of the print media by the ruling party should also be cited as a case that needs to be rectified. Opposition parties also need to turn things around in their utilization of the media within the remaining weeks to the election. 11 Capacity limitation of parties, lack of cooperation on the part of some media outlets and breaching of law are among the major problems encountered during the stated period. The rate of appropriate utilization of public resources is indicative of how responsible parties and the media are. Therefore, both parties and the media should work in harmony much better than they have already done to ensure that the people of Ethiopia have a clear idea of the parties and individuals running for election to represent them. With the frame work crafted so accommodatingly for campaign financing and media use, nothing less than optimal use would be a mockery of scarce public resources. Instead of the bickering and name calling that is the characteristic of relations between parties in Ethiopia, the time calls for improved relations that are indicative of even better days to come. The fragmented political sphere that has pushed things away from a compromise as much as possible needs to be changed to a cooperative atmosphere where complementing efforts prevail. In that sense, the upcoming elections present a glorious opportunity for political parties to reach out to the people of Ethiopia with a sense as far away from animosity as possible. Media present the perfect opportunity for that and thus, the opportunity needs to be grabbed as it would be built further through time.