Transparency in Tunisia: The ISIE’s Media Center
By Adam Gallagher, Editor and Writer
During any democratic election, the need for transparency and up-to-date information is paramount to the credibility of the vote. As Election Day looms in any country, an election management body (EMB) faces increased scrutiny from local and international journalists and observers. What's more, EMBs are ultimately accountable to provide citizens with accurate information. The need for a transparent and credible avenue for information dissemination grows even more intense on Election Day and during the results tabulation process. To address this challenge, EMBs have increasingly utilized Media Centers to serve as a focal point for communication with the media and other relevant stakeholders. The importance of transparency and information dissemination is particularly pronounced in States, like Tunisia, conducting elections during democratic transitions. Since 2011, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has supported the Tunisian Independent High Authority for Elections’ (ISIE) Media Centers during the country’s important democratic transition.
Following the ouster of the autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisians went to the polls in October 2011 to elect members to the constitutional drafting body the National Constituent Assembly, which also served as an interim legislative body. In 2014, Tunisian voters returned to the polls in January to elect members of the Independent High Authority for Elections’ (ISIE) Board of Commissioners, in October to elect a new Parliament, in November for the first direct election of a President in the country’s history and again in December for a run-off presidential vote. IFES supported the ISIE from the outset with Media Centers for each of these historic votes, which have all been hailed by the international community as free and fair. To be sure, the ISIE’s Media Center played a fundamental role in the transparency of the vote and the tabulation and announcement of the results in each of these historic elections.
The preparations for a Media Center are immense and include a host of technical and logistical issues – such as finding a venue, developing public sector partnerships and staffing the Center. However, “the most notable gain of implementing such a [Media Center] project often goes well beyond the success of the EMB’s work alone since an election Media Center often plays an important role in the democratization of the country as a whole,” noted IFES Senior Communications Specialist Maxim Sansour and Media Advisor Johnny Hazboun. While the conduct of open, transparent elections propels democratization, even the venue of a Media Center can aid in the process. For example, the ISIE’s Media Center is hosted in the Palais de Congress, an ornate conference center that Ben Ali excluded the public from. The space has now been reclaimed for the public good and is seen as an important symbol of transparency; its former negative association with the regime has been diminished.
At a November 21 press conference reopening the Center for the presidential elections, the ISIE’s President, Chafik Sarsar, and the rest of the ISIE’s Board of Commissioners fielded questions from journalists on a variety of salient topics, ranging from out-of-country voting procedures to provisions for blind and illiterate voters. In the days leading up to the election, on Election Day itself and in the days after, the Media Center was bustling with international and domestic journalists, ISIE staff, international and domestic observers, radio and TV outlets and others engaged in the electoral process. On Election Day, the ISIE Board of Commissioners gave several press conferences providing a variety of up-to-date statistics on voter turnout, broken down by electoral district. The ISIE’s commitment to transparency was clearly demonstrated. Indeed, with the national Tally Center staged in the auditorium hosting press conferences, the final stages of the counting process took place in front an intense media spotlight. According to IFES President and CEO Bill Sweeney, “The ISIE’s Media Center is a professional place of trust that has helped to facilitate credible elections and disseminate information.” Ultimately, the Media Center has played a critical role in promoting transparency and, as a result, augmented democratization in Tunisia.
To learn more about the ISIE’s Media Center, I sat down with IFES Senior Communications Specialist Maxim Sansour and Media Advisor Johnny Hazboun. Both Sansour and Hazboun have extensive experience with Media Centers and have worked with election commissions on such projects in Libya, Palestine and Yemen. They have worked with the ISIE on Media Center projects since 2011.
What role can a media center play during a transition to democracy like in Tunisia?
Johnny Hazboun (JH): Media Centers serve as an excellent environment for the media to begin to exercise new rights, it’s the perfect place to witness a new media environment. It provides close interaction between an election commission, which is normally distant, and the media. Media Centers foster a culture of open media and generally improve the media environment. It also serves as a meeting point for journalists and other members of the media during an election.
Maxim Sansour (MS): In a transitional environment like Tunisia, some of the early actions taken become cemented as norms, standards and expectations. People start to expect certain things based on the conduct of early transitional elections. In 2011 in Tunisia, international journalists were unsure if they could bring in their transmissions equipment, which was not allowed under the Ben Ali regime. In response, the ISIE established a specific office at the airport to facilitate journalists bringing in their equipment. For the elections in 2014, there was no question on this issue; it was just assumed that the ISIE would take care of it.
Once you open your house, like the ISIE’s Media Center did in 2011, you create a fluid environment that is in many ways out of your control. Now, the election commission has to be transparent. There is no exclusive coverage. Everyone gets the same amount of leeway. This transparency greatly aids democratic transitions. The ISIE has opened itself to criticism, which it just has to accept, and praise.
How has IFES' work with the Media Center evolved between 2011 and 2014?
JH: In general, the difference in IFES' involvement with the Media Center from 2011 and 2014 has been the transformation of our role from managerial to advisory. This demonstrates an important institutionalization and knowledge transfer from IFES to the ISIE. In 2011, many of the staff only had experience with media work under the Ben Ali regime, now they have a different experience. You can see that there is more familiarity with processes and procedures.
MS: In 2011, we had much more of a lead role. We were Involved in everything in 2011. Three years later, we still provide a lot of support and funding and expertise, but it's much more focused and targeted. In 2014, everything is managed locally by Tunisian ISIE and Media Center staff. There is a clear, developing sense of pride and belief that they can do it by themselves, and they can. There has been a genuine transfer of knowledge, norms and standards. That's the idea. At the end of the day, this is the mission.
What have been some of the challenges facing the Media Center in 2014?
MS: The environment is notably different from 2011. Back then, there was a celebratory atmosphere for the first elections post-revolution. There was a sense of "we did it." So, when mistakes were made, it was much easier to disregard them. In 2014, any mistakes made are much more noted and criticized. There is a little bit more anxiety in the air. In reality, the environment more closely resembles what you see during a democratic election.
One specific challenge stems from the fact that three elections are taking place in a row. In 2011, there was only one. The legislative, presidential and presidential run-off election will all have taken place in three successive months. So, essentially we had to operate three Media Centers. Normally we have a discrete Media Center. This time we've had to rethink everything. Even down to the details of renting out a space for the Media Center to continue to operate.
What have been some of the successes?
JH: The numbers from a technical standpoint say a lot. We are providing more and more feeds and 135 audio outputs, which can used by many different outlets. These indicators demonstrate that the Media Center is facilitating increased coverage of Tunisian elections and helping to provide transparency. MS: One success that I see is the level of trust between the Media Center and the media. In 2011, we built booths that could be used by radio and television media that they were hesitant to use. We had to explain to them that they could use the booths. In 2014, members of the media just came in and got to work in the booths right away.
Watch Hazboun and Sansour discuss Tunisia's post-revolution media environment and its development since 2011.