Letter to the Editor | What’s illegal about reporting election-related news?

MJA is shocked by the Legislative Assembly Electoral Affairs Commission’s (CAEAL) recent statements that misleadingly interpreted “news” as “publicity for election” as denoted in the Election Laws. What is more surprising is that the CAEAL – led by a judge – said it has the right to request that media outlets delete election-related news on their respective online channels before campaign silence days, and violators are liable to be accused of committing the crime of aggravated disobedience. This very interpretation masks a warped understanding of the law, which creates a “white terror” for media professionals. MJA urges the commission to retract its misleading statements and comments. The commission should [clarify] how the laws are applied so as to maintain the credibility of the MSAR government.
There is no article in the Election Laws that stipulates media institutions must delete election-related news published or aired during the campaign period (August 28 to September 10). There are only legal clauses that specify: “media should not publish election-related advertisements”, and a “non-discriminatory approach should be adopted when making election-related news reports”, “with each electoral candidate positioned in equal condition” (Article 81). Also, on the campaign silence day and the voting day, individuals “should not publicize” election activities (Article 197, 160).

Doubts on CAEAL’s legal reasonings
Article 76 of the Election Laws ensures press freedom, which protects the rights to the access of information and news reporting from being hurt by political pressure. This article says: “During the electoral campaign period, reporters or broadcasting enterprises should not be sanctioned for acts related to the campaign; without prejudice to the responsibilities they incur, which can only be pursued after the election day.”
CAEAL claimed that the legal basis for requesting media outlets delete election-related news ahead of the campaign silence days is derived from the definition of “Electoral Propaganda” (Article 75A) within the Electoral Laws, which states: (a) to heed public attention on certain electoral candidate(s); (b) to explicitly or implicitly suggest voters to vote or not vote for certain electoral candidate(s). With the arbitrary application of the above two articles to media outlets, could we conclude it as a fact that any regular citizens, people managing social media discussions, or editors and commentators of Facebook pages dedicated to the forwarding of election-related news and expressing of opinions on candidates are all liable for prosecution?

Media outlets are not ‘tools for propaganda’
In response to an enquiry from MJA, the CAEAL revealed that they are referring to Article 4.3 of Instruction No.1/CAEAL/2021, which states that media outlets deemed to be in violation of the rule are liable for committing the crime of aggravated disobedience. However, this article – as per past [interpretations] – explicitly states that what it regulates is the “posting of propaganda materials in pictures or texts,” but not news reports. Article 4.3 also states that “agents of the electoral tickets; electoral candidates; agents of the candidacy committee; and whoever that is responsible” for the posting or allowing the posting of election campaign-related materials should remove posters, banners or posts before midnight of September 10, 2021. The subject that this article targets at is clearly not media. Even the former CAEALs have never conflated the targets of this article in the past.
What is more regretful is that the CAEAL chairman Tong Hio Fong acknowledged on March 18 of the targeting of media outlets with Article 4.3, with the rationale that there have been more people using the internet for publicity purposes and that there had been members of electoral candidate tickets prosecuted for not removing publicity posts relating to them. This has no relevance to media outlets. But the CAEAL has just deemed web-based news reports a source for irregularities in the election process and scapegoated media outlets.
MJC believes that “news” is not equivalent to “election propaganda”. The very act of CAEAL in dwarfing media outlets [into] “tools for propaganda” shows its misunderstanding of how press works, and also constitutes an insult to media professionals.

Misinterpreting campaign silence days’
The intention of the campaign silence days is to stop the campaign by electoral candidates, but not to prevent voters from finding or receiving information. Only when there are sufficient and diversified sources of information are voters are informed before making a decision. To realize an open and just election process, all people should be given the room to express their opinions. To purge information disseminated via the internet is a misinterpretation of the Election Laws, and the freedom of speech that the laws ordained.
Today’s news is tomorrow’s history. There is no government in the world that has ordered media outlets, en masse, to remove their news in a particular frame of time – unless it is an authoritarian state. MJC urges the MSAR government to recognize the severity of this legal misunderstanding of the CAEAL. The MJC also urges the CAEAL to retract its misleading statements, which potentially affect the election process, and hurt the reputation and credibility of the MSAR government.

Macau Journalists Association

Editor’s note: For consistency – in compliance with our style-book – we have used the official Portuguese acronym of the Legislative Assembly Electoral Affairs Commission, which is CAEAL.

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