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Year 3 No. 8 May 2010

From The National Editor / Towards an electoral journalism - Jorge Bravo

Jorge Bravo
Deputy Director of Information and Public Relations of the Electoral Tribunal of Panama




He is the Deputy Director of Information and Public Relations of the Electoral Tribunal and national editor of the magazine Electoral World.

He has worked in the media in the written press, television and the radio.  He has been coordinator and presenter of radio and television news.

From 1994-1999 was the journalist-editor of the Presidency of the Republic's press office.  He is the author of articles for newspapers and magazines.

Since 1990 has worked in the public administration in charge of the press office of several government agencies. 

In Panama, as in many countries of the region and the world, major changes are taking place in the electoral arena.  Electoral law reforms involving new rules of the game and demanding an increasingly specialized journalism to understand and translate the information content of these new rules, all in the interests of furthering our democratic processes.

The Electoral Tribunal of Panama, the political parties legally established and in formation, as well as civil society representatives are currently engaged in the debate over reforms to the Electoral Code, which are then subjected to the National Assembly which will decide the outcome of these efforts by giving the country an improved electoral law.

In the midst of this debate at the National Commission on Electoral Reforms (CNRE) is the media, in other words, the press whose representatives come religiously every Thursday (the day on which the CNRE sits) to cover the meetings of the Commission.  Representatives from each media: written, radio and television, some more skilled in this area than others, but in the end all doing their job of collecting data to translate it into news broadcasted that evening or the next day in all media.

Some of the topics discussed might appear at first glance of the spectator or of the reporter covering the meeting, an unimportant reform or may not understand the reason for it.   And what needs to be understood in any debate, what needs to be assimilated and what needs to be explained (mainly in the case of the press) is the spirit of the reform.

When seeking an electoral law reform, it is with the purpose of making it more transparent in order to strengthen democracy and electoral processes increasingly more transparent.  While one should not diminish the importance of holding periodic elections, we must be clear that democracy does not end with them.

The electoral matter is not only present in holding an election, but goes much further.   It is present in the partisan life of political groups, in the public funding to political parties, in the female participation quotas, in the individual freedom and rights, as in the case of independent candidacies which its supporters argue should make the citizens rights take precedence over the rights of political parties.  While critics argue that independent candidacies increase the risk of facing governance problems and even "may increase the political and institutional crisis” (Human Development Workbook No. 1 UNDP 2010 quoting Pérez Liñan 2003).  These are all aspects that affect daily life in a democracy.

The election theme is also present in the consultation processes carried out by a country, whether a referendum or plebiscite.  “The public consultation in our country has historically been a tool used for purely electoral issues, but little or nothing has been used for the formation of public policies or the integration of the government's agenda." (Jose I. Blandon - La Estrella de Panama, March 13, 2010).  But it might be possible now, given the recent call made by the government to consult the opinion of the Panamanian people on issues of national interest.

Another aspect that requires the proper handling by the press is the electoral justice, especially in Panama where these issues involve two institutions completely independent from each other: the Electoral Tribunal and the Electoral General Attorney Office, each with specific and well defined functions within the law.  The lack of knowledge on behalf of the journalists leads to confusion, which in fact has been reflected in the local press.

On the other hand, civil society takes an increasingly prominent role on issues of electoral nature and proper handling of information received on the subject is essential in making decisions on electoral politics.

So why not give electoral matters the importance they have in the contemporary world, and in the same way there are specialists in the field of law, economics and other professions, create a specialty in electoral matters within the journalism or social communication careers.

A quick look on the internet allows us to realize that the offer in this aspect is not very wide. University “Dr. José Matías Delgado” of El Salvador is one of the few in the academic market with a Diploma in Political and Electoral Journalism.  There is also the National School of Electoral Training and Civil Registry (EFEC) of the Dominican Republic, an academic institution of the Central Electoral Board (JCE) with academic endorsement of the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo (UASD).  But its goal, as the name implies is more inclined towards the formation of political cadres (figures), rather than electoral journalists.

In parallel, we note that there are options in the legal field, such as the Diploma in Electoral Law coordinated by the Federal Electoral Institute and the Gulf of Mexico University (it opened in December and will end in May 2010), whose main objective is to offer extensive training to people in the district who are interested in this area and are interested in participating with extensive knowledge in the various elections taking place in each of its municipalities.

The election issue goes hand in hand with democracy where the role of media is essential for its strengthening. Journalists interview the Magistrate President of the TE, Erasmo Pinilla C. during the 2009 general elections in Panama.

We are clear that a diploma in its broader meaning is simply the title reached after "completion of studies in state agencies and private schools that provide education not included in the officially established educational levels" (The Little Larouse Illustrated - 2007. 13th edition.)  Furthermore, in several of our countries, the diplomas can be earned by anyone, even without a college degree.  However, it is not as "important" as the degree.  In  Spain, a diploma is usually a three-year college degree while a bachelor’s degree requires five years of college education.  So, as in Spain, in most countries, the bachelor degree is one degree higher than a diploma, therefore as we mentioned above, the intent is to plant the seed to create the master's degree in electoral journalism and thus achieve a higher level of specialized study within the profession.


Nationally, none of our universities offering journalism or communications have anything similar to a specialty in electoral matters.  It is not even a subject on the syllabus, and from the range of concepts that are handled in the electoral jargon many are unknown in essence by students of journalism, even by the journalists covering electoral matters.


It is known that there are multiple dictionaries specialized in the definition of these concepts, which shows that the electoral subject has its own language, which should be known in order to be able to write well about it.


In Panama, after the Catholic Church, the Electoral Tribunal is one of the most credible institutions in the country and each of its actions, which fall strictly within the law, must be well explained and therefore well understood by the population in order to continue to maintain the prestige and confidence our first democratic institution enjoys today, and which is the basis for the credibility in the proclamation of results in an election or popular consultation.


Laying the foundation to establish in some of our universities a master’s degree in electoral journalism is not a utopia or a dream impossible to meet.  Perhaps in that sense, the TE has already taken the first step with the presentation of the diploma project "Towards electoral journalism", which come true, would be an unprecedented experience in Panama.


The draft was formally presented by Alternate Magistrate Lourdes Gonzalez Mendoza during the stage-face of the Second Electoral Conference held in Mexico City from September 28 to October 3, 2009, and with the help of the facilitators and other participants was amended and strengthened and re-deliver there, hoping it would be well received by the OAS for funding and implementation in our country for the years 2012 and 2013, as outlined therein.


This diploma is intended to provide journalists and communicators linked to political and electoral coverage the tools and knowledge necessary to analyze, understand and explain the key issues in the electoral process.


Taking into account the leading role of media in shaping opinion, in the definition of criteria and democratic consolidation, it is essential that its constructive integration has an increasingly a proper, explanatory, purposeful speech, reflecting reality from its various angles and going beyond short-term issues, to contribute to the formation of critical readers of the social themes and problems.


“The job of the journalist in modern society -argue in their book "Writing in the Press" Jose Luis Benavides and Carlos Quintero  Herrera, - is much more complex than "recording the facts correctly" over others and the context in which they are placed can substantially affect the way the journalist "records reality”.


Equally important is to contribute to debate and to the maintenance of the national agenda of social issues regarding elections in order to influence the commitment of public authorities and society to improve public policy, public services and social auditing especially on more sensitive issues in the country.


Hence the approach of a master towards electoral journalism, a specialty that just as it does in law, requires giving emphasis to electoral matters in the contemporary world that every day demands more from the professional class of any society.

Media coverage on one the sessions of the National Commission of Electoral Reforms 2010.