Data analysed by BIRN shows that most Albanian broadcasters broke rules by allocating more airtime to the ruling Socialist Party in the run-up to April’s parliamentary election, but they escaped sanction.
In fining Albania’s public broadcaster, RTSH, for violating a ban on campaign coverage on the eve of the country’s April parliamentary poll, the State Elections Commissioner ignored the heavy bias across Albanian broadcast media in favour of the ruling Socialist Party, experts say.
The Commissioner slapped the publicly-funded RTSH with a fine of two million lek, roughly 16,250 euros, in response to the final report of the Audiovisual Media Authority, AMA, which for the first time in an Albanian election monitored the allocation of airtime to political parties by broadcast media.
AMA data analysed by BIRN show that Albanian broadcasters across the board broke the electoral code in devoting more airtime to the ruling Socialists than their chief rivals, the Democrats, and neglected smaller parties.
The AMA recommended sanctions against several outlets, but the Commissioner decided to fine only RTSH for breaking the ‘electoral silence’ on the eve of the vote.
Experts were incredulous, while one AMA board member, Sami Neza, said he was “astonished”.
“We have proposed more administrative sanctions, but they have not been taken into account,” Neza said.
Premto Gogo, executive director of the Coalition for Reforms, Integration and Consolidated Institutions, KRIIK, an NGO involved in election monitoring in Albania, told BIRN:
“The media have not been balanced in their coverage during the campaign. This sanction will only burden the taxpayers.”
According to Albania’s electoral code, broadcasters are required to provide balanced, pluralistic and impartial coverage during the election campaign, adhering to standards of professional journalism and avoiding the use of hate speech.
The code stipulates that broadcasters should allocate equal airtime to Albania’s two biggest parties and that together these parties should not receive more than twice the airtime of smaller political parties.
Yet according to data collected by AMA from 22 television stations and analysed by BIRN, 41.2 per cent of news coverage was devoted to the ruling Socialists, 32.9 per cent to the opposition Democratic Party and 15.4 per cent to the government, led by Socialist leader Edi Rama, and the president. The Socialists won, with Rama clinching a third successive term as prime minister.
The Socialist Party dominance is even greater if one looks only at Albania’s three big private national broadcasters, TV Klan, Top Channel TV and Vizion Plus, which account for the lion’s share of the audience in the Albanian TV market. On these three, the Socialists enjoyed 50.4 per cent of airtime, compared to 33.1 per cent for the Democrats.
“I don’t want to name and shame, but there were media outlets that devoted 80 per cent of their coverage to a single party,” said Neza, the AMA board member. “I believe a new approach is needed in the regulation of media outlets during the electoral campaign.”
The representation of the two main parties on talk shows was more balanced in terms of the airtime allocated by all national and local television stations monitored by the AMA.
But looking only at the three big commercial broadcasters, which have the most popular primetime political talk shows, the ruling party’s domination is clear: Top Channel TV, Klan TV and Vizion Plus allocated 48.2 per cent of talk show airtime to Socialist Party candidates and only 23.9 per cent to those of the Democratic Party.
Even in terms of live broadcasts, the main Albanian broadcasters favoured Rama’s Socialists with 48.6 per cent of airtime, compared to 38.9 per cent for the Democrats.
The two biggest parties also received several times more airtime than the limit set by the electoral code in comparison with the 17 other parties running for parliament.
Taken together, the Socialists and the Democrats enjoyed 74.1 per cent of news coverage, 71.3 per cent of talk show airtime and 87.8 per cent of airtime allocated to live broadcasts of campaign events.
“The time allocated to the two main parties directly affects the electoral result,” said Elvin Luku, a professor at the Department of Journalism and Communication at the University of Tirana.
The disparity begins with the electoral code, he said, which allocates more airtime to the main parties than new or smaller political movements.
“Small political parties do not have the financial means for ads and events and their representation in commercial broadcasters is next to non-existent compared with the two big political parties,” Luku told BIRN.
Besides the lack of balance between parties, women also suffered compared to their male colleagues and competitors for parliament, regardless of political affiliation.
Across national and local TV stations monitored by AMA, men enjoyed 80.8 per cent of airtime compared to 19.2 per cent for women, despite the fact that 39.8 per cent of candidates running for parliament were women.
A monitoring report produced by the Albanian Women Empowerment Network, AWEN, on the depiction of women in the media during the election campaign criticised as “superficial” the way in which four national broadcasters covered issues important to female voters in their nightly news bulletins.
While political talk shows, particularly those hosted by women journalists, gave more access to women candidates, this was often restricted to a small number of household names, while younger women candidates struggled for airtime.
“The television programmes that we monitored show that the airtime allocated to men is always greater than the airtime allocated to women,” said AWEN executive director Ines Leskaj. “Also, most campaign coverage in news bulletins place male politicians in the centre.”
Leskaj said the campaign coverage neglected important issues such as gender-based violence, which is a major problem in Albania, neglected female journalists and favoured more outspoken female candidates.
“More airtime was granted to women candidates who attacked the prime minister or other party leaders and used harsh language toward opponents,” Leskaj said.
Besides monitoring the allocation of airtime, the AMA also issues recommendations during the campaign for broadcasters to better balance their coverage, by compensating parties previously neglected.
But AMA board member Neza said the process was not straightforward.
“A political party could have been favoured with airtime in prime time and its competitor is compensated in the morning,” he said. “I believe compensation in minutes should be reviewed as a mechanism that guarantees equal coverage over time.”
Neza also called for legislation to regulate the power of the State Electoral Commissioner to bring sanctions, telling BIRN: “It should be the law and the legal acts that would force him to react toward the disproportional behaviour of the media toward political actors.”