The project showed a problem typical of Argentina — the unwillingness of the media and the parties to talk about their sympathies and financial relations. The success of the party finance reform will depend on journalists and the media owners’ honesty.
Kristian Greenberg, Argentina’s Transparency International chief spoke to Inta Lase
In Argentina TI carried out a very important project on party finance controlling. What was the main principle of this action?
The idea of controlling the expenditures of political parties before the elections was set up because of the large quantity of political advertisements in the mass media and because of the situation, that voters have no possibility to find out who is paying for the campaign and how much the parties are spending on the campaign. It was an initiative from civil society. The main idea was to set up a coalition between the private sector, state institutions and an NGO. On the one hand we invited the political parties to change their behavior and open their budgets to the public. On the other hand we asked private media audit firms to assess political advertisements in the media. We, as an NGO, asked the media to make public their income from political advertisements. After collecting this data we made some calculations and came up with a figure, as to how much the parties should be paying for their advertisements. Finally we compared our figures with the figures given by parties. The final figures were published in the media.
During the project we focused only on the data concerning the political advertisements because we wanted to gather only the so-called hard data. The numbers could not be described as easy to interpret. For example, if we tried to find out how many cars belong to a political party, politicians or their relatives, afterwards we could not to make any conclusions about the party’s expenditures and about the so-called black money in the party’s budget, but the politicians could say that our data is not solid.
The historical experience of the last 50 years shows that the main expenditures of parties are election campaigns.
How many newspapers and radio and television stations did you monitor?
Mainly we worked with the national media. Of course we monitored some regional media as well, because we know that during the election campaign the regional media is brilliantly used for political advertisements. Our goal was not to monitor 100% of the media. We wanted only to show the trends. If the politicians lie about 80% of their expenditures, they will lie in other cases as well. So we wanted, in the name of society, to open the funds of the political parties to the public. We tried to change the political agenda, concentrating on the rights of society to know the persons who stand behind the parties and to know how much each party is spending on the election campaign.
In Argentina, parties have to declare their income and expenditures only after the elections. That is too late. Therefore we published four bulletins before the elections. In these bulletins we published our information about the expenditures of each party.
What was the result?
In comparing our results with the numbers given by the political parties we discovered essential differences. For example, if we found that parties should be spending 10 units on advertising, then the parties would say that they spent only 3 units on advertisements. This means that 70% of the money used in political advertisements comes from unknown sources or is the so-called black money. Parties said that the difference is the discount given by the media. The media and the media agencies told us that such a difference is not possible in Argentina’s media market. The maximum discount given by media in Argentina is 20%. So once more we have proof of the parties’ unofficial income. The media was also pleased with our data. It was published in the national newspapers and broadcast on TV so that society could find out the real expenditures of political parties during the election campaign.
To find out the correct figures you asked the media to publish income from political advertisements. Did the media give you such numbers?
The answer from the media was two-faced. On the one hand they liked our data very much and they published it. On the other hand, when we asked the media to publish their real income from political advertisements, they did not want to do it. Unofficially they told us that our data was correct. The publication of the data also proves that we are right.
This project once more showed a problem typical of Argentina — the unwillingness of the media and the parties to talk about their sympathies and financial relations. The fact that before the elections some media did not hide their sympathies towards one political party was pretty clear. This was especially obvious in the regional media. Furthermore we have information that the sympathies of newspapers or local TV channels change from elections to elections.
This means that you also measured hidden political advertising in the media?
The goal of the project was not to analyze this kind of advertising. Hidden political advertising is another category and the numbers we could gather in such research would not be objective. The data would not be solid, because there is a thin line between freedom of speech and an article or programme paid for by politicians. This borderline is a question of a journalist’s professionalism. Freedom of speech means that everybody is free to choose the person who will bee interviewed and the material which will be published. But of course this is one of the methods during the pre-election campaign. During the project we found another type of hidden political advertisement. The government or a ministry orders a public advertisement, which is shown on television shortly before the elections. We had an example with a government paid campaign against cancer. The advertisement explained about the government’s projects and invited people to make use of the possibility of free visits to the doctor. This advertisement presented the leading party in a positive way. We asked if this advertisement campaign helped the leading party to win the elections or not. The opposition thinks it helped and they say that the leading party acted unethically. We did not analyse such advertisements, because once more we could not gather solid data. During the project we only pointed out this problem.
How did you get the data from political parties about the expenditures on political advertisement, if the media refused to give information on their income?
Of course, at first the politicians hated us, because it was unacceptable to them that an NGO could control them. It was quite uncommon for Argentina, because we have very weak traditions of democratic civil control. But the situation wasn’t so bad, because we found some supporters from the new political parties that were ready to make their budgets public. Of course, they had their own interest in making a deal with TI. If they want to compete with large parties in the elections, they need a lot of money, but they do not have that kind of income. Therefore they were interested in supporting the democratic mechanism of civil control, which could set some limitations on the parties’ expenditures during the election campaign. If the leading political parties have cheaper campaigns, the small parties can at last try to compete. The largest parties were ready to cooperate after being told that the small parties are ready to participate in our project. Naturally they did not want the media publishing the information, that some small parties are more democratically orientated than the leading ones.
What limits are set on party financing by law? What is the official party finance controlling mechanism in Argentina?
We have a very useless law. There are some limitations set by law, but in reality these limitations are ignored. Officially a private person or firm donates the allowed amount of money, but the black money coming from this source and going into the election campaign is much larger. Argentina is a country with a very weak role of law and the finance police are not able to monitor the parties and discover the violations of the law on political party financing. Therefore we need different control mechanisms which could clearly point out the most suspicious areas. One of these control mechanisms was our research.
What did you suggest for improving the law or is it useless to fight against the using of black money in election campaigns?
The basis of the political advertisement system should be changed. For example, political advertisements in the media should be prohibited. Or at least, the political advertisements should “enter” the mass media only 2 months before the actual elections. In Argentina there are no restrictions on political advertisements in the media. Therefore the richest political parties start their political campaigns a year before the elections. If a party really wants to compete in the elections, politicians need so much money, that they cannot receive it from official donations. Therefore, the environment in Argentina is ideal for political corruption and for money laundering through political parties. On the one hand, the party needs more and more money for political campaigns, and on the other hand the narcotics trafficking or persons not paying taxes with a lot of black money can finance these campaigns. These very expensive political campaigns have a bad influence on party democracy, because only old and rich parties can compete in the elections. The only options of new political powers are to become corrupted or to be ready to loose elections.
For example in Chile, which has a similar political regime and has similar political traditions to Argentina, there is a ban on political advertising. Thus election campaigns in Chile cost one tenth of what they do in Argentina. Therefore we initiated a public debate about the limitations of political advertisement. We also suggested to the government that limitations must be set on the duration of a political election campaign. I think that 2 months are enough for political parties to inform voters about their ideas. Those 2 limitations will minimize the expenditures of political parties during the election campaigns and this will help to exterminate one source of political corruption.
How will you define political advertising and how can you avoid hidden political advertisements in the media?
Of course, we are not naive. We know, that we cannot exterminate political advertising from the media. But it is very important to set public opinion. It will force politicians to think about different campaigns. The success of this reform will depend on journalists and the media owners’ honesty.