The role of impartial reporting in upholding democratic processes
According to Freedom House, political rights and civil liberties have seen a decline in democracies in general. According to their Freedom in the World 2021 Report, India, among the largest democracies in the world, slid from free to a partly free ranking. Correspondingly, it scored poorly on the free and independent media criterion. The country has seen an increase in self-censorship as a consequence of the State’s use of national security, sedition, defamation, hate speech and contempt of court laws to muzzle criticism.
This isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Over the last decade, media freedom in many countries has deteriorated, with populist leaders making sustained efforts to silence critical news coverage. Large parts of influential democratic countries are no longer receiving unbiased news. Pro-government news is being cultivated in many countries through government supported ownership, financial pressure, regulatory suppression, etc. in a number of countries including Hungary, Austria, Israel, and the United States, among others.
A Freedom House report states that parallelly, countries such as Ethiopia, Malaysia, Ecuador, etc., saw reformist leadership facilitating media freedom, which further catalysed democratic advancements. This is indicative of the fact that a free media is necessary to keep citizens informed in a way that holds the State accountable for its actions.
The Role of Unbiased Reporting in Supporting Democracy
In Sudan, many atrocities that went unreported in the absence of reliable media, were brought to light by citizen journalist groups and journalists who had set up base abroad. The country saw a crackdown on these individuals, who continued to find ways to provide unbiased reporting through the internet, despite the risk of detention. Protests grew as a result of rising frustration, till the President, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted and arrested. Even though the peace process remains fragile, the transition deal for the country to become a democracy in itself is a success the media has a hand in.
Journalists also played a major role in the removal of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the former president of Algeria, in 2019. Not only did they report on growing demonstrations and protests, when attempts were made to suppress them, senior journalists resigned and staged independent protests of their own.
Similarly, in Armenia, a small group of independent news outlets were able to provide visibility and legitimacy to the popular movement, and challenge disinformation campaigns by the previous regime.
Impartial Election Reporting
A liberal interpretation of Article 25 of the ICCPR would provide that the right to report on electoral processes is an integral aspect of the right to participate in public affairs. The accuracy of such reporting, especially in deteriorating political circumstances leading up to elections in many countries, plays an important role in the outcome of democratic processes.
The ability of broadcast media to influence public opinion is well established. Therefore, journalistic independence also plays a major role in holding leaders accountable for their political actions. An important characteristic of impartial election reporting is the separation of fact and opinion. In addition, the editorial responsibility to impartial coverage requires that outlets report the varying positions of different parties on the same issue, with balance and accuracy. Disproportionate coverage of candidates for whatever reason, be it economic motivations or viewership numbers, leads to potentially meritorious candidates remaining invisible.
Furthermore, given the growing trend of ideological bias and differing sources available to gain access to information on the internet, media publications have an obligation to put forth balanced information to facilitate informed decision-making. Fact checking and data-driven reports are key to the outcome of elections. Assessment of legislation and other key electoral processes is integral to a holistic approach to election reporting.
Regulation of Media Reporting During Elections
Many countries do not have specific provisions to govern media reporting during elections. Others maintain some regulations in an attempt to level the playing field and in the interest of fairness. In other countries, professional associations self-regulate their behaviour during elections.
The central idea behind regulating electoral coverage is to ensure that broadcast resources and frequency spectrums, that are in public ownership, are not used to favour the ruling party. The US, for instance, follows a system of minimal regulation, treating broadcasting as a marketplace where competing broadcasters will balance each other out. In situations where large sections of the media are in favour of one political interest group, it becomes relevant to have laws governing election coverage. These could include how much time is allotted to candidates and political parties on media platforms, rules for advertisements or whether political advertising is permitted at all, guidelines on the obligation of the media to provide educational material, and regulation on how misinformation will be dealt with.
In the end, circumstances guide the extent of balanced reporting that can take place. Journalistic balance should not fail the public by creating a false equivalence that distorts relevant issues.