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Election coverage regulations

The Election Commission of Bhutan is in the process of drawing up regulations on election advertising and coverage by the media during the 2008 elections to ensure free and fair elections, according to commission officials.

According to commissioner C.D Rigdzin, The Media Coverage of Election Rules and Regulations and the Election Advertising Regulations, which were briefly presented during the two-day seminar on "Media and Democracy" last week, would prevent all forms of media in Bhutan from favouring or promoting a political party.

"The media is bound to give objective reporting, it should refrain from publishing or broadcasting any material with potential of inciting hatred and communal division," the commissioner said.

The regulations among other things, bars media from any coverage on election campaigning 48 hours before polling or actual voting.

"The media will have to be aware of certain rules during election because even without an intention to support a party or a candidate, it will be seen as indirectly supporting by covering the activity of a party on a crucial period where it is not supposed to cover," he said. "Media is a powerful instrument and it might give wrong signals or influence the voters. It is the right of the voters to give their own independent reflection without being influenced by media."

The commissioner however, explained that the regulations did not mean that there would be total news black out. The rules are being drawn based on democratic principles practiced for centuries in other countries, he said.

The Election Advertisement Regulations, according to the commissioner, would try to regulate or control undue influence of money power in election.

"Advertisement is linked to how a voter sees a party," he said. "A party or candidate having so much resource can advertise and influence voters' decision."

Parties or candidates would have to follow rules from sticking posters to hanging banners to canvassing, and allocation of time and space in all forms of media.

The regulations would cover all forms of media including electronic media like Internet, chat rooms, and short message service (SMS) with an objective to solicit votes, share information to reach out and convince voters about a party's manifestos, objectives, or its strength.

Even those who conduct surrogate campaigning; campaigning on their own would be covered.

If not controlled, some parties may try to exceed the government-approved ceiling of campaign expenditure or use other means to campaign, the commissioner said. "This legislation would curb this kind of maneuvering," he added.

The commissioner explained that the advertisement regulation would create a level playing field and ensure that parties with less resources are not sidelined or discriminated.

Any agency or media fraternity conducting public opinion polls should refrain from releasing the results prior to the closure of the polls, according to the draft regulation.

"Opinion polls have huge impact and could lead to undesirable ramifications," said the commissioner.

Asked if editorial policy would be restricted, the commissioner said that any media should not, under the guise of editorial coverage, cover programmes of a party during the polls.

"Media has all the right to use its discretion," said the commissioner. "The media has the right to reject anything that is likely to promote public disorder or threaten national security."

Contributed by Ugyen Penjor, Kuensel, Bhutan's National Newspaper, November 2006
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