Mon, 01 Dec 2003

Political ads regulation to become problem

Lukas Luwarso, Executive Director, Southeast Asian Press Alliance, (SEAPA) Jakarta

For only 21 days -- the time allowed to launch campaigns for the general election of 2004 -- political parties will have to promote themselves intensively during that brief period. Besides the familiar major parties that possess funding resources, many new ones will join the contest, with names and logos as yet not well known. Certainly, a large number of parties will be campaigning via the mass media, particularly through advertisements.

No specific provisions on campaigning through mass media political ads have so far been issued. The media, electronic and printed, are only "obliged to provide equal opportunity for all election participants to put election ads within the framework of campaigning." The General Elections Commission (KPU) has stated that a number of issues that may arise before and during election campaigns have been identified and some penalties are being worked out for violators of the rule.

For instance, the penalty on media especially published to promote certain candidates is under formulation. In addition, in the draft rule on campaigning, the KPU, along with election participants, will lay down provisions on printed and electronic media ads, covering the type, form and total ads permitted for the relevant participants. In the draft, it is, among other things, specified that the KPU bans participants from using advertising opportunities not available to the others.

The regulation on political ads is contained in the KPU's draft decision on campaigning rules. In this draft, provisions on media utilization through political ads indicate confusion over the matters to be regulated. Instead of dealing with political ads, the draft creates an impression of KPU intrusion into the technical side of advertising. For example, the KPU will determine technical matters such as the type, form and number of ads for respective election participants (Article 14, paragraph 2).

Just as in ads made for commercial purposes, election entrants will strive to sell their mission and vision to the public via the media. Political ads usually contain party platforms, candidates' programs and their attempts to attract voters. Normally, ads can be distinguished from news reports, such as those in the printed media, by dividing lines separating them. Therefore, mass media political ads, as far as they are clearly in the form of ads (now known as advertorials), need no specific discussion or regulation.

Buying space and air time for political ads or commercials in the media is not the same as buying votes in society. Election participants with a lot of funds at their disposal can lavish money on media advertising but cannot expect the cost of political ads to produce proportional vote gains. Data on political ad expenditure in the 1999 general election shows that the amounts spent on ads failed to reflect parties' vote gains.

The attempt to regulate political ads, if this is indeed necessary, can be focused on the restriction of funds spent on such advertising. This is to respond to fear of domination by ads coming from participants with large resources. The absence of any rule restricting funding for campaigning ads leaves political parties free to spend their budgets on advertising. The general elections law stipulates no limits to the campaigning funds for use by parties. Article 78 of Law No. 12/2003 regulates only the amount of campaign contributions (individuals not to exceed Rp 100 million and private institutions not to exceed Rp 750 million).

The other provisions that may still be imposed concern the content of ads, which must be in line with the campaigning stipulations laid down in the election law. These include a ban on insults to individuals, religions, ethic and racial origins, groups, other candidates and/or election participants; on attempts to provoke and play individuals or groups off against each other; on suggesting that the public resort to violence.

Rather than political ads, greater attention should be paid to political information in the media on the eve of and during the period of campaigns. News, features and interviews can serve as disguised ads, resulting from either cooperation between the relevant media and election participants, or the "rewards" given to individual journalists. Camouflaged ads should be treated with higher suspicion because they constitute a form of deception presented to society. Vigilance is also needed against the media claiming to be public-oriented, while they turn out to be used as a political mouthpiece by, for instance, their owners running for the presidency. It is even more urgent for the KPU to establish cooperation with the Elections Supervisory Committee and media control agencies to monitor political reports rather than political ads in the context of next year's general election.

The writer is an activist from Media Coalition for Elections.