The European Institute for the Media [EIM] is a nonprofit research organization that has conducted media monitoring during elections in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union for the last ten years. Its research shows a worrying pattern across the Commonwealth of Independent States: the slow and halting development of the kind of free media necessary for a democratic society. Those countries have effectively resisted the European and liberal models for the role of media touted by international advisers and academics in the early 1990s.
A TROUBLED DECADE
Post-Soviet media can be said to have gone through three periods of development: freedom without responsibility (1991-1993), media empires and media sponsorship (1994-1998), and responsibility without freedom (1999-present). In Russia, journalists tend to regard the period 1989-93 as a golden age in terms of their freedom to express themselves without constraint. October 1993 was the turning point for many with the (albeit brief) reintroduction of censorship at the height of Yeltsin’s war on parliament.
During the early 1990s private media enterprises flourished against a backdrop of new freedoms for their establishment and few laws regulating their content. There were no laws, for example, against piracy, enabling broadcasters to fill up airtime with foreign entertainment. Implementation of those laws on content that existed–restrictions on the incitement of national, ethnic and religious hatred or calls for the overthrow of the state, for example–was still patchy because more pressing economic and political concerns tended to predominate.
The CIS countries typically saw their executive and legislative branches struggling to control state media enterprises. Governments wrestled with the dilemma of how to retain leverage over state media without carrying the financial burden. Behind this is the conflict between constitutional guarantees and international agreements on freedom of speech and the desire of the political elites to control information flows and shape public opinion.
The creation of a new class of individuals with political ambitions and economic clout came about in the selective privatization of industry and the parceling out of profitable companies to government allies. These new oligarchs were not a phenomenon specific to Russia. They appeared also in Azerbaijan (Rasul Guliev), Kazakhstan (Akezhan Kazhegeldin) and Ukraine (Pavlo Lazarenko). As part of the expression of their political interests, they began to amass controlling packets in existing media companies or to set up their own.
In the mid-1990s, the Russian presidential administration courted the most influential private network–Vladimir Gusinsky’s NTV–with sweeteners in the form of reduced state rates for frequency hire and a 24-hour license. Most of the oligarchs were also persuaded to support Boris Yeltsin’s presidential campaign in 1996. For example, press and television coverage failed to reveal that the president had suffered an incapacitating heart problem on the eve of his second round run-off against Gennady Zyuganov.
Russia’s enormously important political and economic role in the CIS region has inevitably led to copycat developments in the changing media landscape. Indeed, sometimes Moscow intervened directly. The lessons of Russia’s 1996 presidential election had widespread repercussions for CIS country media. At that time, the Kazakh government cracked down on independent media, forcing them to tender for new licenses and undergo interviews with a Loyalty Commission, with the result that thirty private broadcasters closed down in the space of a few months. Russian TV channels still broadcasting to Kazakhstan were shut down, and the ORT frequency was given to the Khabar TV station run by President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s daughter. There was a backlash against private media in Georgia with the closure of the independent television company Rustavi 2 (which was, however, later reopened).
The Asian crisis in 1998 dealt a final blow to the political ambitions of a series of would-be pretenders to the leadership of some of the richest CIS countries and to the market survival of CIS private media. The collapse of the Most Group in Russia in 2000, for example, exemplifies what can be called the wholesale delivery of the popular independent media into the hands of pro-government owners.
THE EVIDENCE FROM RECENT ELECTIONS
Monitoring of the media during recent elections shows that most CIS countries have been unable to break out of the cycle of repression caused by increasingly authoritarian governments and economic and political stagnation. State-owned media are still firmly under control of the parties in power during elections. The most significant recent development has been to incorporate the private media sphere into this cycle, by a combination of simple intimidation and financial manipulation.
The EIM monitoring media coverage of elections involves both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Quantitative analysis involves systematic measurements of the space and/or time devoted to parties and presidential candidates in the main broadcasters and newspapers during the election campaign, together with an appraisal of the tone (positive, neutral, negative) devoted to the subject. Qualitative analysis involves interviews and focus groups conducted by media experts, including a study of the implementation of media law.
EIM monitoring identifies one major trend: the inability of the authorities to relinquish editorial control over state-owned media. Moreover, despite the liberal provision of free airtime to registered political parties and candidates, studies indicate that this is precisely the least interesting area for audiences in terms of how they manage information about the campaign. In the area of Russian television, studies have stressed the importance of the main news broadcasts as a source of information for voters.
Taking a look back over elections in the CIS since 2000, the same pattern emerges in each of those monitored: biased coverage in favor of the ruling party or incumbent president. During the Russian presidential elections of March 2000, the main state-owned channel ORT devoted 30.7 percent of its news coverage to Vladimir Putin. Grigory Yavlinsky came second with 12.4 percent, followed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 11.3 percent, and Communist Gennady Zyuganov–Putin’s main challenger–with only 9.3 percent. For all these competing candidates, according to EIM evaluations, neutral or negative coverage outweighed positive reports, with the notable exception of Vladimir Putin.
In Ukraine, the most recent EIM media monitoring mission took place during this year’s parliamentary elections in March. UT-1, the state broadcaster on the first channel, resolutely failed to live up to Ukraine’s own election law standards of impartiality and balance. During the three weeks of monitoring, UT-1 devoted nearly eight and a half hours of coverage during prime-time to the “party of power,” United Ukraine. The next most mentioned party was the Wintercrop Generation (a new party widely believed to be pro-government) with just under two hours. United Ukraine also had 52 percent of all news coverage on UT-1, the oppositionist Our Ukraine, 13 percent. The tone of coverage was also positive towards United Ukraine, and toward Our Ukraine and the Tymoshenko bloc in the main negative.
The head of the channel justified the United Ukraine coverage as being a result of having to cover its leaders carrying out their government duties. The facts remain, however, that this “party of power” received over four times the coverage devoted to any other party, that the tone of that coverage was demonstrably positive. The channel’s reports on other parties, particularly Our Ukraine, were negative. Bias on the part of UT-1 is a fair conclusion.
United Ukraine benefited from the across-the-board coverage. In the period March 10-31 it had nearly 600 minutes of coverage, half in news programs and half in other formats (commercials, entertainment, sport, chat shows, etc.) The Communists (KPU) had 120 minutes, and Our Ukraine less than 100 minutes.
The tone of coverage was equally skewed. The only parties/blocs to receive significant amounts of negative coverage were the opposition groupings represented by the Tymoshenko bloc (56 percent negative), Our Ukraine (15 percent) and the Communist Party (5 percent). In contrast, five parties/blocs received large amounts of positive coverage on the state channel. United Ukraine had 45 percent of its total coverage conveyed in a positive light. Wintercrop Generation also had over 40 percent positive coverage, followed by Vitrenko (32 percent), Unity (22 percent) and Women for the Future (10 percent).
One positive note is that, despite the tendency of the mass media to ignore or slander the opposition parties during the election campaign, the reaction of the voting population was quite the opposite of that the authorities desired: The Communist Party, Our Ukraine and the Tymoshenko bloc returned far higher in the polls than the party of power.
In Azerbaijan, President Haidar Aliev is said to be in touch on a daily basis with the directors of AzTV-1, the only broadcaster with national reach. During the parliamentary elections in November 2000 EIM monitors were allowed an interview with AzTV staff for the first time, a delight somewhat tarnished by the fact that the channel director and the chief news editor were both out of the office campaigning in the regions for the New Azerbaijan Party (chaired by Haidar Aliev and led by his son Ilham). Monitoring of news coverage indicated that the channel was much concerned with the fortunes of the New Azerbaijan Party, not (in the circumstances) surprising. From October 15 to November 4, 2000, in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, AzTV-1 devoted 90 percent of its news coverage to the New Azerbaijan Party. Two other parties got a mere 3 percent each, three got 1 percent, and six no mention at all.
The first state channel in Georgia is also the only network reaching the entire country. During the April 2000 presidential elections, the channel devoted the majority of information in all types of program to incumbent Eduard Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze got more than three times the coverage of his nearest rival, challenger Jumber Patiashvili, with news reporting making up half the airtime.
The Kyrgyz state broadcaster KTR showed a similar demonstrable bias in favor of incumbent Askar Akaev during the October 2000 presidential elections. More than 90 percent of state television airtime was devoted to Akaev. However, in Kyrgyzstan, KTR is not the only national broadcaster. Most of the population also receives the Russian channels ORT and RTR and the private Kyrgyz company Pyramida. At the beginning of the campaign, Pyramida broadcast adverts for an opposition candidate, provoking sharp CEC criticism, supposedly on the basis of content. Two days after receiving this reprimand, Pyramida stopped taking paid political advertising for the rest of the campaign. Opposition candidates were effectively blocked from the air of the only alternative national broadcaster to the state-owned KTR, severely limiting their options.
During the September 2001 Belarusan presidential elections, 85 percent of airtime on state television was devoted to incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Belarus State TV has a small audience share during prime time (around 10 percent) due to the popularity of the Russian channels available to Belarusan audiences. But the Russian state channel RTR broadcast an hour-long program during the elections entitled ‘One day with the President,’ a political advert in the form of an uncritical documentary on the daily burden of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
During Moldova’s February 2001 parliamentary elections, small private broadcasters supported specific parties on the basis of their ownership, but encountered serious difficulties with the authorities as a result.
POORLY ENFORCED ELECTION LAWS
Broadly, laws relating to media during elections have been set up with the intention of ensuring equal treatment of all parties and candidates in terms of time and space allocated and conditions of payment. State media are obliged to provide free air time and article space for the registered parties and candidates.
Monitoring by the EIM has pointed up many failings in the regulatory frameworks for media during political campaigns. These range from contradictions between election regulations and other national laws to the partial application of international obligations, although in the last three years as election regulations have been updated, the character of the laws has generally been assessed quite highly. However, penalties for violations of media law during elections are often trivial, assuming they are enforced at all (a fine of a mere $300, to take the Russian example).
In Ukraine, for example, during the 1999 presidential elections, the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting was unable to operate during the elections, because four of its members had to be elected to their position by the president, who failed to do so. During the parliamentary elections in March of this year, the National Council continued to arbitrate a nationwide tender process for frequencies and was thus ineffective in dealing with the hundreds of complaints passed on to it from the Central Electoral Commission.
Strict libel laws can be used to control critical media, as with the law introduced in Azerbaijan in 1995 to protect the honor and dignity of the president. Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan followed with similar legislation. The Council of Europe persuaded Moldova to drop such a law the following year, and Tajikistan rejected it on the grounds that the provision was already in force, albeit in another form, in the Criminal Code. June 2002 saw the imprisonment of two regional journalists in Belarus on grounds of insulting the president in articles published during the September 2001 elections. The use of the courts to punish unruly private media has been accompanied by administrative measures such as the imposition of tax, sanitary and fire inspections, which produce quicker results than recourse to the courts.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
These processes have played out in different ways in different countries. Currently, one can identify the following three broad categories: