The media has four primary roles during elections. They serve as transparency and accountability watchdog, provide a forum for debate and dialogue, function as a campaign platform, and educate the public.
A regional election monitoring group highlighted these functions in a multi-sectoral dialogue with the Thai media conducted by the Southeast Asian Press (SEAPA) on 31 January 2019.
Karel Jiaan Antonio, program officer for campaign and advocacy of the Asian Network for Free Election (ANFREL), said that as election monitors, they recognize the important role of the media during elections in shaping public discourse.
Admittedly, such role is a tough one to play in parts of the region where the press faces intimidation and censorship, a situation that calls to mind the repressive environment confronting the Thai media today.
The SEAPA public forum drew around 60 participants from the media, civil society organizations, youth and academe. Together they discussed some of the challenges to meaningful media reportage in Thailand amid the political situation confronting the country, particularly in the run-up to the next election.
The much-delayed Thai election has been called off several times since the military junta toppled the civilian government in 2014. The Election Commission has set the final date for the general election, March 24.
Aside from ANFREL, speakers from other parts of the region shared their thoughts and countries’ experiences during their most recent elections.
In Malaysia, Norman Goh, social media editor of online news website Malaysiakini, said the media space prior to the May 2018 election was limited as the mainstream media was politically controlled by the former ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN).
During the election period last year, Goh said a lot of media space had been taken over by the government at the time, under then Prime Minister Najib Razak. The opposition had little to no space to debate policies.
Malaysiakini was considered persona non grata in Malaysia, he said. Almost every month in the run-up to the election, they experienced being visited by the authorities, who seized their computers and phones without filing any charges.
Despite efforts by the previous administration to dominate the public discourse through the media, the May 2018 elections in Malaysia turned out to be a historic moment, not only for the opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan (PH) but also for the majority of Malaysian people, as well as independent media notably Malaysiakini, known for its critical reports. PH’s victory and the re-emergence of Mahathir Mohamad as the country’s new Prime Minister effectively ended the 60-year rule of BN.
In Cambodia, the government cracked down on independent media prior to the 2018 elections, when at least 32 local radio stations were shut down, said Min Pov, editor at Voice of Democracy, or simply known as VOD.
Min Pov said 17 local and international news websites were blocked in Cambodia a day before and during the election day.
Unlike Malaysia, where there was no legal stumbling block for the opposition to participate in the election, the Supreme Court in Cambodia ordered the dissolution of the opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party months before the vote, and banned “118 of its senior officials from any political activity in the Kingdom for five years.” (‘Death of democracy’: CNRP dissolved by Supreme Court ruling, 17 November 2017)
Making people ask questions
Antonio said the media must provide space for various points of view to level the playing field. He also suggested that media reach out to civil society organizations for proper contexts underpinning public interest issues.
He also highlighted the media’s role to bring to the fore questions that the people need to ask, including on public governance. When people do not ask questions, it means democracy is dead, he said.
“Publish stories that make people question their beliefs,” Antonio said. “Make the people critical of their experience.”