Media Centers, Election Transparency

Maxim Sansour, Tunisia
Publication Date: 
24 Aug 2017

News Type:

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, 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 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 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.

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 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. 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 ISIE’s Media Center has played a critical role in promoting transparency and, as a result, augmented democratization in Tunisia.

In this Q&A, Sansour discusses IFES’ efforts in assisting the ISIE establish the Media Center. He has extensive experience with Media Centers and has worked with election commissions on such projects in Libya, Palestine and Yemen. Sansour began working with ISIE on Media Center projects in 2011.

What role can a Media Center play during a transition to democracy?

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 did IFES' work with the Media Center evolve between 2011 and 2014?

In 2011, we had much more of a lead role. We were involved in everything in 2011. Three years later, we still provided a lot of support and funding and expertise, but it was much more focused and targeted. In 2014, everything was managed locally by Tunisian ISIE and Media Center staff. There was a clear, developing sense of pride and belief that they could do it by themselves, and they did. 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 were some of the challenges facing the Media Center ahead of the 2014 elections?

The environment was 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 were much more noted and criticized. There was a little bit more anxiety in the air. In reality, the environment more closely resembled what you see during a democratic election.

One specific challenge stems from the fact that three elections took place in a row. In 2011, there was only one. The legislative, presidential and presidential run-off election all took place in three successive months. So, essentially we had to operate three Media Centers. Normally we have a discrete Media Center. In 2014, we had to rethink everything, even down to the details of renting out a space for the Media Center to continue to operate.