Free speech extended, for the time being

On Friday I wrote about a draft law being prepared in the Portuguese parliament by the three ‘power parties’ (‘power parties’ in this context meaning the three political parties which have been part of the government since the current democratic system was installed; two of them, PSD and CDS, are currently in the ruling coalition). This draft law intended to change the current law about the media coverage of electoral acts and  make all media outlets submit in advance their plans to cover every election and referendum.

The press would have to submit their plans to a committee, formed by the Portuguese national electoral committee and the country’s media regulator, which would then validate them, ensuring that they respected all parties and lists equally. The time frame to submit these plans would force the media to submit their plans just before the candidates’ lists were presented, meaning that the press would have to determine their work plans even before knowing which candidates were running. The parties were working fast enough to have the draft law approved long enough before the next general election, which will take place in either September or October this year. On my post, I pointed out that this was a way the power parties found to minimize potential electoral hazards in case the press becomes too critical or discovers something that could potentially harm the chances of a certain candidate or party.

Needless to say, reactions were overwhelmingly negative, with nearly all Portuguese media outlets, groups and associations outright rejecting the contents of the proposal and going so far as to threaten a boycott of the next election. This would probably be a first in the history of Portuguese democracy, as the electorate requires a regular press coverage of any electoral act in order to know the main proposals and the views of the candidates. An electoral process without any media coverage opens the way to the political parties’ marketing machines to dominate the whole background. Even more strangely, the national electoral committee and the media regulator (who were set to validate the media’s coverage plans) were unaware of this, with the chair of the media regulator admitting he had received « unofficial information » from members of parliament but nothing beyond this.

In a twist of events, on Friday this draft law was effectively killed off by the three parties that were so diligently working on it. On the very day the parliament was going to vote on a draft law that would render the media’s electoral coverage much more burdensome and burocratic, the centre-left and centre-right parties which had been working on it for months simply took it off the agenda.

Was this a reaction to the extremely negative backlash the proposal from nearly all media outlets and public opinion?

As it so often happens when something extremely unpopular happens, all the main players involved are trying to shake all responsibilities off. António Costa, secretary-general of the Socialist Party and contender for the position of Prime Minister in the next general election, claimed he was unaware this proposal existed and that he completely disagreed with the contents of the now-dead draft law. The parliamentary speaker of PSD (the party of current Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho) said his party had no responsibility on the most sensitive parts of the draft and claimed those were introduced by the socialist party. Later in the day, Prime Minister Passos Coelho, deputy Prime Minister Paulo Portas and Minister of Justice Paula Teixeira da Cruz distanced themselves from the draft law, with the PM claiming respect for the independence of the parliament, the deputy PM referring to his appraisal of press freedom and the Minister of Justice expressing full disagreement with the proposal’s content.

Looking at what the three main parties are saying about this, it looks more and more like an amateur exercise in crisis management. The proposal was handled quietly for months and when its contents became known, just a few days before it was set to be voted in the parliament’s plenary, the backlash against it (or some other force I’m not aware of) forced all three power parties to back down in order to avoid accusations of going against press freedom. Those same groups are now trying to cover the damages by pushing the blame to the others and keeping their distance from the most controversial points of the proposal, going so far as claiming something that was nearly completely different of what they were defending before.

In other words, what had been quietly worked on for months with the intention of being approved before the next election is now quickly killed off to prevent negative consequences in the September/October poll. Worse, the leaders of the parties involved in this proposal all distanced themselves and some went so far as expressing themselves against it. Overall, this shows that the three power parties not only have a clear problem with the press coverage of the elections, drafting a proposal which intended to make the journalists’ work slower and more predictable, it also shows they are completely amateur at this effort, as they showed no competence whatsoever in first presenting their proposal, then at handling the negative backlash it triggered. Before the draft died off, some MPs even said they didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

On my Friday post, I expressed a position that went completely against the proposal and expressed my personal solidarity for the boycott threats it triggered. Its parliamentary death means that the press will not be bound by more burocratic constraints to do its job during the 2015 general election coverage. At the same time, it gets me concerned not only with the behaviour of the main three Portuguese political parties who came up with that draft, but with the way they handled the entire process. These parties represent almost 80% of the votes cast in the 2011 election, their disrespect for the role of a free press and their lack of professionalism in handling this matter from the very beginning is another stark reminder of why we need a free press and an informed public opinion.

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