Should it stay or should it go?

Whether to maintain, abolish, or adapt the notion of pre-electoral silence is “a discussion that needs to be made”, says the Chief Electoral Commissioner.

A debate is brewing: maintain, abolish, or adapt – what’s the future of the legal provision requring ‘pre-electoral silence’?

“It is a discussion that needs to be made, considering the significant societal changes, especially the introduction and growth of social media, since the relevant legislation’s enactment in 1991,” said Joseph Camilleri, Chief Electoral Commissioner, in a conversation with The Journal editor Sandro Mangion on Kafè Ewropa, One Radio’s weekly European election talk show, on Friday morning.

Camilleri pointed out that today’s landscape, dominated by social media, raises a crucial question: is the current law fit for purpose? While it effectively restricts traditional media like TV, radio, and newspapers, it struggles to regulate social media platforms. These platforms empower political parties, politicians, and campaign teams to bypass traditional media gatekeepers and connect directly with voters.

Joseph Camilleri, Chief Electoral Officer. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli/Times of Malta.

In the lead-up to elections, some democracies enforce a ‘campaign blackout’ period. During this time, political campaigning ceases and media outlets are restricted from broadcasting information about candidates or discussing opinion polls. This aims to provide voters with a space for independent thought, free from last-minute campaign influences.

Out of the European Union’s 27 member states, nine allow unrestricted speech in the media and commentary on opinion polls throughout elections. These countries are Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Sweden. The remaining 18 EU countries, including Malta, have varying restrictions on media coverage, content type, and the duration of pre-election silence.

In a story carried by the Times of Malta earlier today, former Minister Austin Gatt, who drafted the 1991 ‘day of reflection’ law, expressed his belief the 24-hour pre-election period of silence in political campaigning and media should be removed “as it is no longer enforceable” in an era of social media. Current Social Policy Minister Michael Falzon, who in the early 1990s was responsible for organising the electoral process for the Labour Party, also said that it would be “commendable” to improve the law that was drafted at a time when the media landscape was different.

According to a European Parliament study, while most European voters make their decision early, younger voters, who haven’t formed a consistent voting pattern, are more likely to wait until the last minute to decide. Countries like the Netherlands (42%), Sweden (33%), and Finland (30%) top the list for last-minute decision-making.

With elections for the European Parliament being undertaken over a four-day period, the European Union faces challenges in implementing consistent silence periods across member states, particularly given the rise of social media and interconnectedness. To address this, the European Parliament passed a resolution in May 2022, calling for EU-wide electoral reform, including standardised rules for silence periods and campaigning during elections, as well as the introduction of transnational lists. The proposal requires evaluation by member states and is likely to face a lengthy approval process.

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio

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