3. A parliament that is open and transparent


For a parliament to be ‘open’ means, most obviously, that its proceedings are physically open to the public. This is not always straightforward in an age when the security of public figures is a pressing concern. Yet many parliaments have found it possible to strike a balance between openness and security, in such a way that parliament is manifestly seen to belong to the people as a whole, and not just to its members. In a number of countries, such as South Africa, it is a constitutional requirement that the public must have reasonable physical access to parliament.

In practice, of course, most people are unable to visit parliament in person. For parliamentary proceedings to be open to the public, therefore, means in effect being open to the press and broadcasting personnel who act as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the public as a whole. The first part of this chapter will look at ways in which parliaments can facilitate journalists and the media in reporting their proceedings, and will consider issues such as access, freedom of information, freedom of expression and media regulation, all of which can contribute to a better informed citizenry.

Informing citizens about the work of parliament is not just a concern for independent media, however, but is a responsibility of parliaments themselves. Over the past few years, parliaments everywhere have been making strenuous efforts to inform and educate the public about their activities, and to engage their interest and attention. In this they have been helped by the rapid development of new forms of communication such as the Internet, which also facilitates an interactive relationship between representatives and citizens rather than just a one-way communication. From this point of view the division of the Guide into separate chapters, dealing with the transparency and accessibility of parliaments respectively, may seem somewhat artificial. However, it will be convenient to distinguish them in the interests of more thorough treatment. Citizens cannot hope to influence parliaments unless they are first fully informed about what they are doing; neither will they be able to hold their representatives properly to account (see chapter 5). So the second half of the chapter will review parliaments’ own efforts to inform and engage with the public, and the different ways in which they seek to do so.

Facilitating journalists and the media in reporting the work of parliament

Parliaments depend upon journalists, editors and media presenters for informing the public about their work. Yet there is much mutual distrust between them. Journalists are often frustrated by restrictions on access to proceedings, or by contempt and defamation laws which may unnecessarily constrain what they can publicly report. Parliamentarians on their side hold the media partly responsible for the low esteem in which they are collectively held, because of a one-sided portrayal of their work. ‘The media tend to focus more on proceedings which are adversarial and on matters such as travel and expenses without placing them in the wider context of a parliament that is constructive and systematic’ is a typical comment from the Irish parliament. Pictures of empty benches convey the impression that members are ‘moonlighting’ when they may well be properly engaged in other parliamentary business, whether in committees or in their constituencies.

Inevitably there will be some tension between parliamentarians and the media, given the different purposes and cultures of the two professions. Yet they both need each other, and have everything to gain from seeking to collaborate in the ways in which parliament is presented to the public. The public, for their part, have an interest in maximum openness if they are to be effectively informed about the activities of their elected representatives.

   Issues of access

Much of the work of parliament is now carried on in committees, and many parliaments are now opening them up to the public and media personnel. Reservations made by parliamentarians to doing so centre on the fear that proceedings may become more partisan if they are public, that witnesses may be less forthright in their evidence, or that members may exploit the occasion for ‘grandstanding’. However, if the media are to give a more rounded picture of the work of members, then opening up committee proceedings where much of the work is carried on is a logical step, and one which is becoming more general, subject to obvious limitations on grounds of personal or national security.

Among recent examples of improved transparency, the Dutch Parliament has experimented with opening up the procedural meetings of certain committees to the public, so that observers can see how they set their agendas and arrange public hearings. The House of Representatives of the Republic of Cyprus now allows media personnel to attend committee meetings ‘with very few exceptions’. The Assemblée Nationale of the Cote d’Ivoire, which used only to permit summaries of its committee meetings to be published, has since 2001 allowed the press to attend and report on all committee proceedings. In South Africa, committees are open to the public and the media, and can only be closed after open discussion and with the approval of the Speaker. The Australian House of Representatives assigns a media advisor to help committees develop communications and media strategies for their public enquiries, and to maximise media coverage of committee activities.

This last example raises a consideration that is particularly stressed in a recent report of the Puttnam Commission in the United Kingdom on parliamentary communication. This is that, in a busy media world where competition for news stories is intense, it is no longer enough for parliamentarians simply to provide information or access, but must themselves take the initiative in identifying items that are newsworthy for journalists to pick up on:

Media organisations are much leaner than they used to be, and can no longer spare journalists to spend their time in the gallery or a committee room in the hope of coming across a story……While some committees already receive good coverage for their work by virtue of controversial subjects, media-savvy chairs or inherent public interest, this is now being complemented by the work of select committee media officers. They are now choosing particular reports to push to media outlets and explaining why the findings are of particular news interest……MPs need to accept that communication of this sort is not inherently partisan. (Hansard Society Commission, Members Only? Parliament in the Public Eye, Hansard Society, 2005)

Many parliaments are simply unable to afford this degree of provision of media officers. But the training of members themselves, and especially committee chairs, in media relations and presentation could readily equip them to take similar initiatives. The Commission’s concept of ‘media-savvy’ chairs is one that could be generalised.

The same Commission makes a further point about media access, particularly of television, which is not just relevant to the UK Parliament. This is the way rules on access can restrict the form of media coverage as well as its range, and so provide only very dull viewing or reporting in comparison with other news events:

Channel Five told the Commission that ‘Another reason why Five News, in common with other news programmes, has reduced its coverage of Parliament is because of the severe restrictions which apply to television news organisations, in particular, the largely static TV coverage within the chambers and the limited access for cameras within the precincts of Parliament’……Channel Four said that, ‘In return for giving up some of their privacy, we believe that parliamentarians would be giving out an important message to viewers – “This is your building. We are your representatives.” The feeling given off at the moment is that the building belongs to MPs and Lords – not to the people.

Further online reading about the Puttnam Commission on Communication of Parliamentary Democracy:

Puttnam Commission on Communication of Parliamentary Democracy (2005). Members only? Parliament in the public eye. Hansard Society <http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/programmes/puttnam_commission>

   Freedom of information

Legislation which gives citizens access to information held by public bodies is an important democratic resource, which is endorsed by the ‘right to seek information’ provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This is distinct from the requirement on public bodies to publish their own proceedings and reports, though both may be covered by the same regulations or legislation. Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation now exists in more than fifty countries in every region of the world. It provides a resource for use by citizens and NGOs as well as the media, to improve the transparency of public bodies. While its use can assist parliaments in holding governments to account, it can also enhance the accountability of parliamentarians themselves.

In some countries access to information about parliament is provided by regulations relating specifically to parliament, in others it is covered by FOI legislation which is applicable to all public bodies. An example of the former is provided by the Polish Senate, whose submission points to the wider benefits to democratic life of its provisions:

In an effort to comply with citizens’ constitutional right to information, Senate regulations include rather detailed provisions covering, for example, the need to inform the public of forthcoming Senate sittings, public right to attend Senate and Senate committee sittings, public access to Senate papers, minutes and stenographic reports from Senate and Senate committee sittings, as well as to other documents and information associated with the work of Senate and its bodies……There is no doubt that access to information issues legislated in so much detail has a great deal of impact on the transparency of work performed by the Senate and its bodies, contributing on one hand to the democratisation of life and, on the other, to activating citizens who can, if they so wish, become familiar with Senate work via the access to information from of their choice. This is extremely important for a democratic societal control of people’s representatives, whose performance voters can scrutinise using numerous possibilities of accessing information while at the same time learning democratic parliamentary procedures.

Romania’s parliament is covered by a general law on the free access to information of public interest. ‘In application of this law, the Senate and Chamber of Deputies provide access to information of public interest, both ex officio and on request, through their respective specialised services.’ Slovenia’s parliament is also covered by a general act on Access to Information of a Public Character, applying to all public bodies. Ecuador has its own access to information statute, ‘guaranteeing the transparency of all public activity including that of parliament’. Typical of all such legislation is the existence of independent bodies which are authorised to hear complaints against decisions to deny access to information, including those made by parliament itself. Here, to take another example, is how the Parliament of Jamaica describes the purpose of its FOI Act:

The objects of this Act are to reinforce and give further effect to certain fundamental principles underlying the system of constitutional democracy, namely – a) governmental accountability; b) transparency; and c) public participation in national decision-making, by granting the public a general right of access to official documents held by public authorities.

Many international organisations have published model FOI laws, which are very similar in the issues covered. Here, for example, are some of the key principles for FOI outlined in a publication by the global campaign for free expression, Article 19:

  • the principles of maximum disclosure, obligation to publish and active promotion of open government;
  • exceptions should be clearly and narrowly drawn and subject to strict ‘harm’ and ‘public interest’ tests;
  • access to information should be facilitated, and requests not deterred by high costs or delay;
  • refusals to disclose information should be subject to appeal to an independent body whose decisions should be binding.

Further online reading about freedom of information and model laws:

Article 19 (2001). A model Freedom of Information Law <http://www.article19.org/pdfs/standards/modelfoilaw.pdf>

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (2003) Recommendations for an informed democracy <http://www.cpahq.org/uploadedFiles/Information_Services/Publications/CPA_Ele ctronic_Publications/Recommendations%20for%20an%20Informed%20Democracy%20%20 -%20Perth.pdf>

Freedominfo.org <http://www.freedominfo.org/>

Mendel, T (2005). Parliament and access to information: working for transparent governance <http://siteresources.worldbank.org/WBI/Resources/Parliament_and_Access_to_Information_with_cover.pdf>

Organization of American States (2003). AG/RES. 1932 (XXXIII-O/03): Access to public information: strengthening democracy <http://www.oas.org/juridico/english/ga03/agres_1932.htm>

The Commonwealth (2003). Model Freedom of Information Act <http://www.thecommonwealth.org/shared_asp_files/uploadedfiles/{AC090445-A8AB-490B-8D4B-F110BD2F3AB1}_Freedom of Information.pdf>

   Freedom of expression

The counterpart to the right of access to information is the right to communicate and publish it freely to others. This right is fundamental to the democratic process as one based on dialogue and persuasion between informed citizens and between them and their representatives. In the context of media reporting of parliament, it is essential that any limitation on this right should be drawn as narrowly as possible.

Under standard human rights conventions and their jurisprudence, any restrictions on the freedom of expression are subject to a threefold test: they should be a) ‘prescribed by law’; b) such as are ‘necessary in a democratic society’, for example for the protection of national security or of the rights and reputations of others; and c) ‘proportionate’ to these necessary purposes. The most frequent restriction that has been used to limit what can be said or written about parliamentarians concerns the damage to reputation, or ‘defamation’.

In most democratic countries it is accepted that the public role of politicians should make them more open to public scrutiny, and tolerant of a much wider range of comment and criticism, than might be reasonable for private persons. This assumption has also been endorsed in international jurisprudence on the freedom of expression. Nevertheless, some countries still have defamation laws which can be used to restrict the range of media reporting of politicians unduly. These can be particularly restrictive where they form part of the criminal law, with a possible penalty of imprisonment for journalists who overstep the line. In other countries it is the level of damages that can be awarded in civil cases which may act as a deterrent to robust public disclosure or criticism. In addition, some parliaments have broadly drawn contempt of parliament provisions which can be used to limit criticism or punish journalists for reporting leaked information. Other means that have been used to hamper legitimate journalistic reporting or criticism have included the withdrawal of accreditation to report parliamentary proceedings.

It is probably a good test of the robustness of a country’s democracy that parliamentarians are reluctant to have resort to such means to limit criticism or the flow of information to the public. But it is also in their hands to review restrictive legislation which may date from a less democratic era. In this context it is worth noting the report of a study group of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) on ‘Parliament and the Media’ held in February 2003. Among its many recommendations are these:

(6.2) Parliaments should repeal legislation, rescind Standing Orders and/or publicly abandon their traditional authority to punish the media and others for offending the dignity of Parliament simply by criticism of the institution or its Members.

(6.3) Inaccurate reporting should not be considered as contempt of Parliament. Contempt should be reserved for serious cases of interference with Parliament’s ability to perform its functions.

(8.2) Questions of eligibility for media access should be determined by the media itself. Parliaments should retain the right to suspend access for media representatives who violate Standing Orders or otherwise disrupt parliamentary proceedings.

(9.2) Criminal laws inhibiting free speech……should be revoked.

To these recommendations could usefully be added a principle from Article 19’s publication on defamation, referring to the right of journalists to refuse to name their sources, which of course has general applicability beyond defamation cases: ‘It is well established that the guarantee of freedom of expression entitles journalists, and others who disseminate information in the public interest, to refuse to disclose the identity of a confidential source.’

Further online reading about freedom of expression and parliaments:

Article 19 (2000). Defining defamation: principles on freedom of expression and protection of reputation <http://www.article19.org/pdfs/standards/definingdefamation.pdf>

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2005). Seminar for chairpersons and members of parliamentary human rights bodies on freedom of expression, parliament and the promotion of tolerant societies: summary and recommendations presented by the rapporteur of the seminar <http://www.ipu.org/splz-e/sfe/conclusions.pdf>

   Media regulation

A final issue to consider in the relations between the media and parliament is parliament’s responsibility for setting the regulatory framework within which the media operate. This framework typically covers questions of ownership and control as well as considerations of content. Although this subject is a complex one, and media technologies are rapidly changing, the principles governing what the public requires from the media in a democratic society are relatively simple: accurate information, a variety of viewpoints and opinions, and respect for the equal dignity of all citizens. Naturally such principles also bear on the reporting of parliament itself, on political parties and individual parliamentarians.

Issues of ownership and control typically affect the variety or pluralism of viewpoints available, especially on television. This is the medium which people in most regions of the world mainly rely on for information and debate about politics, except for Africa where radio is more significant (see table 3.1). The table does not include the Internet, which is rapidly becoming a major source of news in many countries, especially for young people.

Figure 3.1: First main source of information for national and international news per region

  TV Newspaper Radio Others
Middle East 78 8 7 7
East Europe 76 11 9 4
Asia 73 15 8 4
Latin America 71 12 14 3
West Europe 63 22 10 5
North America 59 21 9 11
Africa 30 7 58 5

Source: Pew Global Attitudes Project, December 2002, reported in Marta Lagos, ‘World Opinion: the World’s Information Channels’, International Journal of Public Opinion Research, vol.15, no.2, 2003, 201-211.

In view of their significance and also their expense to run, the pluralism of broadcast media can be threatened from two quite different directions. In publicly owned broadcasting, the main threat is that of government or dominant party control, which excludes critical, oppositional or alternative perspectives on government policy. With regard to the privately owned sector, the chief threat comes from monopolistic or oligopolistic ownership, where pluralism is threatened by a combination of populism on one side and the protection of the interests of the wealthy and privileged on the other.

The best way to contain these pressures is by an independent regulatory body which has strong powers to limit concentrations of ownership, including the cross-ownership of different media, as well as to prevent government interference in publicly owned broadcasting. Parliaments can play an important non-partisan role in setting the framework for such a regulatory body and acting as guarantor of its independence. Creating impartial appointment procedures for such a body is regarded as crucial by most experts on the subject. The CPA Study Group (see above) cites examples from both Europe and Africa to this effect:

In 2001, the Council of Europe adopted a recommendation on the independence and functions of broadcasting regulatory authorities, aimed at protecting them against interference by political forces or economic interests……Particular emphasis is laid on transparent procedures for appointing members of these bodies, on precise rules to prevent them from holding interests in businesses or other media organisations, and on protecting the members from dismissal through political pressure.

In South Africa……the constitutional court has ruled that independence of the media regulatory authority lies in the appointment and dismissal mechanisms, the funding mechanisms and the actual functioning of the body. At the Authority’s creation, the South African Parliament’s Media Committee advertised for members and interviewed the candidates. The recommendations it presented in a report were debated and adopted by the National Assembly, before the Head of State was advised on the appointments.

As to the regulation of content, opinions differ as to whether this should also be governed by an independent broadcasting authority, or left to a self-regulating body under the control of the industry itself. Many broadcasting authorities set broad parameters for content in licensing agreements, such as minimum news and current affairs coverage, standards of advertising or the timing of ‘adult’ programmes. At the same time, the CPA Study Group takes the view that ‘it is the responsibility of the media, not parliament, to set and supervise their highest professional and ethical standards’. The limitation of self-regulation, however, is often found in the inadequacy of sanctions or effective public redress in the event of false or tendentious presentation.

An interesting example of non-regulatory involvement by parliamentarians in broadcasting standards is provided by Brazil. Here, in the absence of any code of ethics for TV programmes, members of the Human Rights Committee of the Chamber of Deputies have collaborated with civil society organisations to establish a nation-wide monitoring system for programme standards. Viewers are encouraged to send in complaints on programmes they find offensive, and a ‘shame list’ is drawn up of the persistent offenders which is then discussed in regular meetings with TV programmers. The guiding principle of the campaign is the equal dignity of all citizens:

The Campaign ‘Those Who Encourage Low Quality are against Citizenship’ is an initiative of the Commission for Human Rights of the Chamber of Deputies, in partnership with civil society entities, with the purpose of promoting the respect for human rights and the dignity of the citizen in TV shows. The Campaign consists in the permanent monitoring of TV programming in order to detect which programmes – systematically – disrespect international conventions signed by the Brazilian Government, constitutional principles and actual legislation which protect human rights and citizenship. (Brazilian Chamber of Deputies (2005). Those Who Encourage Low Quality are against Citizenship)

Typical violations of these principles include the degrading presentation of people on grounds of gender, colour or sexual orientation; assuming the guilt of those charged with a crime; filming vulnerable groups or individuals without permission; interviewing children in inappropriate ways; showing scenes of violence or explicit sex at prime time; and so on. The campaign illustrates the potentially wide remit which a human rights committee of parliament might define for itself, as well as the role of parliament as a sounding board for public opinion in the face of powerful commercial interests.

Further online reading about media regulations:

Bouchet, N; Kariithi, N.K (2003). Parliament and the media: building an informed society. World Bank Institute, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association <http://siteresources.worldbank.org/WBI/Resources/wbi37228BouchetKariithiWEB.pdf>

Strategies of parliaments for informing the public about their work

So far we have been concerned to identify the ways in which parliaments are becoming more open to citizens through improving public access, and removing barriers to media reporting within a regulatory context that encourages pluralism and non-discriminatory content. Equally important are the strategies adopted by parliaments themselves for informing the public about their work, and seeking to engage their interest and involvement. The inherent difficulty of this should not be underestimated, since it is not just a question of communicating information, but of making it intelligible to the vast majority of people who are not familiar with the workings of a parliament.

Parliaments that have been recently established, or which have recently reviewed their communication arrangements, have tended to adopt a comprehensive information and education strategy under a single communications officer or department. This strategy embraces every kind of medium – broadcasting, the Internet, publications, information centres and educational initiatives of all kinds. The advantage of multiple and coordinated means of dissemination is that the public can access information through the medium of their choice or availability, as this contribution from the Hungarian National Assembly shows:

It is important that the activity of Parliament is available to the citizens via several channels. For most people television, printed media and radio broadcasts are the primary channel of communication. Plenary sessions of the parliament are broadcast live on radio and television, these days parliamentary sessions can be viewed also on-line on the Internet. The Library of the Parliament and the Secretary General’s Office offer additional sources of information, as well as a special telephone line or e-mail available for all citizens, operated by them, through which questions concerning the legislation or the work of Parliament are formulated. Non-profit organisations may obtain information from the Civil Office. Since the basic stipulation for the democratic operation of Parliament is to make available all information to the citizens, several channels of information are therefore at the disposal of the public.

Parliaments have traditionally kept a full printed record of all their proceedings. Many now also have their own dedicated television channel for broadcasting and recording their proceedings. One advantage of this is that it enables parliaments to maintain editorial control over the content, as well as to allow a much greater range of activity to be shown. The Republic of Korea, for example, used to rely on the government’s KTV channel to broadcast plenary meetings. ‘Starting from May 2005, however, the National Assembly launched a channel exclusively for legislative affairs through which it broadcasts directly to the people the entire proceedings taking place in the National Assembly.’ While these dedicated channels may only interest a minority of the population, they fit into a more general picture of increasing fragmentation of media audiences. What is important, however, is that such channels should be accessible to the widest population. Expanding the potential audience for the parliamentary channel has been a concern for a number of our respondents, and has been facilitated by the rapid development of digital broadcasting, as this report from the French Assemblée Nationale indicates:

The parliamentary debates are broadcast, generally live, on the Parliamentary Network, which includes two stations, each dedicated to a chamber of the parliament. So far this network, which also broadcasts interviews, studio debates and other educational programmes, has been available only on cable or satellite television, or via an ADSL connection. On 31 March 2005, the launch of terrestrial digital television in France will make it possible to extend significantly the reach of this network, which will be among the 14 channels available for free in digital services.

Extracts from a report submitted by the Mexican Senate indicate the typical range and ambition of a dedicated parliamentary channel:

With the intention of complying with its informational objective of supplying Mexican society with information about the activities that take place in the Legislative Power, Congress formally created on 28 August 2000 the Congress Television Channel of the Mexican Republic……The programming has integrated legislative activities of both Chambers that make up the Mexican Congress, such as:
  • Joint Sessions of the Chambers
  • Task force meetings of the legislative Commissions
  • Programmes expressing opinions and with legislative participation
  • Interviews with government officials
  • Informative notes and data
  • Night news, and
  • Programmes with cultural and educational information, produced by means of collaboration agreements with different institutions……
The Congress Channel covers the whole of Mexico as it is transmitted through a cable system in the complete country, which reaches a potential 10 million television viewers; and also by subscription to Channel 144 in the SKY system and to Channel 220 through Direct TV reaching another 10 million viewers. Presently we have pending a permit to extend the diffusion by means of the MMDS Systems and with our own UHF frequency to send the signal to 100% of the country……
Emails sent to the Channel have made it possible to have a vast variety of responses from the TV audience……By this means the Director’s Office of the Channel has gotten to know the usage tendencies of the TV viewers, the geographic zones participating, the kind of social broadcasting, to whom it is addressed, the interests, the opinions, the needs and the proposals made by viewers of the Channel……

In conclusion, the Channel is widening the image of Congress and extending its presence in society, becoming an extension of the tasks carried out by Congress itself, offering society, on the one hand, an informative image that is more realistic and complete of the Senate, and, on the other hand, facilitating more access to interact with the Legislators……With this, the Channel is granting the right to information and freedom of expression in the country, and contributing to build citizens and not only spectators or information consumers.

As the Mexican submission also shows, the division between ‘traditional’ media of communication and the Internet is now breaking down. Many parliaments use video links to broadcast their proceedings in real time via their website, even though they may not have a dedicated TV channel. This also enables them to reach citizens abroad, who otherwise would not be able to follow parliamentary proceedings directly. The Portuguese Parliamentary Channel, for instance, ‘also broadcasts through the Internet site and allows people to follow it worldwide. The information is quite relevant considering the number of Portuguese emigrants entitled to vote in the parliamentary elections.’ Another example from Mexico shows the interest that can be aroused abroad through this medium:

One remarkable recent experience (March 2005) has been the transmission of the Mexican Senate hearings with the Foreign Affairs Secretary, the President of the Federal Electoral Institute and the President of the Federal Electoral Court, to analyse a change in Mexican law that would grant the right to vote to the Mexican citizens outside the country, among them, the 10 million Mexican citizens that live in the United States. According to unofficial estimates, these Internet transmissions have been followed by approximately 400 000 computer users in the United States.

To take another example, the Indian Parliament has offered this comment on the significance of extending the broadcasting of its proceedings:

Telecasting and broadcasting parliamentary proceedings lead to first hand political education of the common people. Constituents now have the opportunity of seeing for themselves the role being played by their elected representatives in ventilating their grievances……On 14 December 2004, two separate dedicated satellite channels for telecasting live the entire proceedings of Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha nationwide were launched by the Vice-President of India and the speaker, Lok Sabha, respectively……The Question Hour proceedings of both the Houses are also broadcast live on the All India Radio……ensuring their wider reach across the length and breadth of the country.

The importance of radio broadcasting for countries or communities where ownership of TV sets is low should not be underestimated. As table 3.1 shows, radio is the most important source of information for countries in Africa. However, these regional figures hide some quite marked differences between individual countries. For example, where TV is the main source of information for 92 per cent of the population in Indonesia, this falls to just 2 per cent in Uganda. In African countries, therefore, measures to expand radio coverage of parliamentary proceedings are particularly important. In Botswana, for example, this has been done in a number of ways:

  • Live broadcasts daily while parliament is sitting
  • Press briefings on the agenda before parliament as a news item
  • Regular broadcast interviews with Ministers, in which the public can submit questions directly
  • Introduction of the vernacular language for parliamentary debates and official documents.

The report from the Republic of South Africa has this to say about its own radio project:

The radio project, which aims to educate and inform the public of what happens in Parliament, how laws are made and how citizens are participating in law-making processes, has become the most important means of communicating with the South African public. The project comprises pre-recorded docudrama series, interviews with Members of Parliament and senior officials as well as infomercials. Much of the material is produced in all the official languages and is broadcast nationally on twelve SABC radio service stations. The total audience for the radio project for the 2002/3 financial year was 35 million.

As it happens, TV sets are widely available in South Africa, but people still look to radio as their main source of information about public affairs. This suggests the continuing importance of radio for parliaments even in those countries with extensive TV ownership.

   Parliamentary websites

Almost all parliaments now have their own websites, including a public Internet site to keep citizens abreast of parliamentary proceedings and to provide a record of legislation and, in many cases, an internal site for improving communication with their members. The National Congress of Ecuador, for example, has established an easily searchable electronic database of all legislation passed since 1979, with details of the debates and votes that took place on each. Websites offer not only a more effective means of accessing information, but interactive possibilities also, as this submission from the Congress of Chile illustrates:

It appears that information technology lends itself to giving an electronic impetus to democracy, insofar as unlimited access to legislative information and the interactive nature of parliamentary websites make the legislative process and parliamentary procedures more transparent and leave them subject to closer public scrutiny. Our Website is equipped with tools that make it possible for users to pose questions, send comments, take part in discussion forums and opinion surveys and subscribe to newsgroups according to their personal preferences, etc., all of which brings "electronic democracy" within our reach. This could change traditional notions of democratic institutions and the role played by citizens.

Since these sites mostly share very similar objectives and features, it will be useful here to summarise the IPU’s own guidelines on good practice for parliamentary websites, published in 2000, which was the result of a systematic survey of practice at that time among member parliaments. These are its main recommendations for content etc. under each of a number of headings:

Box: IPU recommendations on good practice for parliamentary websites

General information page
  • Overview of the composition and functions of the national parliament and its constituent bodies;
  • Full text of the Standing Orders, rules of procedure or similar rule-setting documents;
  • Text of the country’s Constitution (where applicable)
  • List of international and regional parliamentary assemblies of which the parliament is a member.
Electoral system
  • Explanation of the election procedure (voting system, electoral constituencies, who votes, who can be elected, nomination requirements, who conducts the election, etc.)
  • Results of the last elections by party affiliation and constituency.
Legislative process
  • Schematic explanation of the legislative process;
  • Legislative agenda and schedule of the current session;
  • Searchable database of legislative acts enacted by the current legislature;
  • Status of current parliamentary business by bill number, topic, title, date, document code, parliamentary body, etc.
Presiding Officers
  • Biodata of the current Presiding Officer of the parliament or parliamentary chamber;
  • Brief description of the Presiding Officer’s powers and prerogatives;
  • Names of Deputy- and/or Vice-Presidents (where applicable).
Members of Parliament
  • Up-to-date list of all members grouped alphabetically, by constituency and by party or political affiliation, including membership in parliamentary committees/commissions, and with hyperlinks to the MP’s personal websites (where applicable);
  • Contact information for each member including his or her e-mail address.
Non-plenary parliamentary bodies
  • Complete list of non-plenary bodies with hyperlinks to separate pages devoted to each body in that category;
  • Description of the mandate and terms of reference of each body;
  • Membership and names of presiding officer(s) of each body;
  • Information on current business and data on upcoming meetings;
  • Relevant contact information of each body.
Search tools for the website
  • Quick search utility – this standard intra-site search tool is based on automatic indexing of documents and allows free-text search for words and word combinations throughout the site;
  • What’s New page – an announcement board with direct hyperlinks to the newest documents on the site;
  • Site map – textual or graphical visualisation of the site’s overall structure containing hyperlinks to individual documents.
Feedback tools
  • A feedback utility that allows users to send their comments and questions directly to the webmaster;
  • Preconfigured electronic mail for sending messages to parliamentary bodies and individual officers directly from the pages of the website.
External hyperlinks
  • Internet users should be able to find their way easily from a national parliament’s website to those of political parties and government institutions, other countries’ parliaments, inter-parliamentary structures, and so on.

Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union

Further online reading about parliamentary websites:

Inter-Parliamentary Union (2000). Guidelines for the content and structure of parliamentary websites <http://www.ipu.org/cntr-e/web.pdf>

Kingham, T (2003). e-Parliaments: the use of information and communication technologies to improve parliamentary processes. World Bank Institute <http://siteresources.worldbank.org/WBI/Resources/wbi37210Kingham.pdf>

Norris, P (2000). Online Parliaments, in Digital divide: civic engagement, information poverty, and the Internet worldwide (Chapter 7) <http://ksghome.harvard.edu/~pnorris/acrobat/digitalch7.pdf>

As the current information from our parliamentary respondents shows, their websites are continually being developed in response to user feedback and user priorities. For example, the activity of the Italian Senate and its staff ‘has been strongly influenced by the added push coming from the web: constituents increasingly want to email their elected representatives and find out on line how he or she voted and what opinion he or she expressed on specific issues.’ In Australia, the online summary of the week’s business in the House of Representatives has proved particularly popular. In Latvia, the Saeima’s database containing the full text of draft laws has enjoyed the most use ‘because every citizen can follow the development process of the draft law he or she is interested in.’ However, the Latvian communication also draws attention to the limits on accessibility. Not every citizen can use this facility in practice.

When we talk about involving the public in strengthening democracy, we should not rely on information and communication technologies (ICT) too much. We have to take into consideration that the current availability of personal computers and, in particular, the availability of and access to the Internet is not as evenly distributed and as broad as we would like. A knowledge society is not about the availability of knowledge on the Internet or elsewhere, but about maximally even distribution of knowledge among the citizens, thus enabling democratic processes……A true expression of democracy is to let every person choose the form of communication that is more convenient for and accessible to him or her.’

The figures provided in this communication for the levels of Internet use in Latvia reinforce this caution: only 24% of the population had used it in the previous six months; only 47% of public libraries had access to the Internet and 71% of schools. If this is the situation for a European country, then how much more is it true of many developing countries in the South. While access to ICT, therefore, enormously increases the range and speed of communication possibilities for its users, by the same token it also intensifies the inequalities between users and non-users. Table 3.2 shows the huge inequalities between the world’s regions in access to the Internet. Within the low access regions and countries we must also assume a huge gulf between those with access and those without. One way of bridging this gap is through a system of ‘cascading’, whereby information is disseminated in electronic form to local agencies (constituency offices, community centres, etc.) and thence by more traditional means to wider sections of the population. Nor should we overlook the use of other new technologies, which are not covered by the figures in the table. For example, Africa currently has the fastest growth in mobile phone use of any continent, albeit from a low base; in 2005 there were six times as many mobile users as users of the Internet.

Figure 3.2: Internet usage statistics

World Regions Population ( 2006 Est.) Population % of World Internet Usage, Latest Data % Population (Penetration) Usage, % of World Usage Growth, 2000-2005
Africa 915,210,928 14.1 % 22,737,500 2.5 % 2.2 % 403.7 %
Asia 3,667,774,066 56.4 % 364,270,713 9.9 % 35.7 % 218.7 %
Europe 807,289,020 12.4 % 290,121,957 35.9 % 28.5 % 176.1 %
Middle East 190,084,161 2.9 % 18,203,500 9.6 % 1.8 % 454.2 %
North America 331,473,276 5.1 % 225,801,428 68.1 % 22.2 % 108.9 %
Latin America/Caribbean 553,908,632 8.5 % 79,033,597 14.3 % 7.8 % 337.4 %
Oceania/Australia 33,956,977 0.5 % 17,690,762 52.9 % 1.8 % 132.2 %
WORLD TOTAL 6,499,697,060 100.0 % 1,018,057,389 15.7 % 100.0 % 182.0 %

Source: Internet World Statistics, Internet Usage Statistics: The Big Picture <http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm>

Notes: Internet Usage and World Population Statistics were updated for December 31, 2005. Demographic (Population) numbers are based on data contained in the world-gazetteer website <http://www.world-gazetteer.com/>. Internet usage information comes from data published by Nielsen//NetRatings, by the International Telecommunications Union, by local NICs, and other sources. ©Copyright 2006, Miniwatts Marketing Group. All rights reserved.

   Taking parliament to the people

Many parliaments have dedicated centres for information and education in the parliament building for organised visits and individual visitors. The Italian Chamber of Deputies, for example, in May 2005 inaugurated a multi-functional and multi-media centre of information in its building, open every day, where visitors can follow parliamentary proceedings on screen, access information on parliament through a variety of media, and engage in systematic research. Other parliaments hold specific Open Days, whether at set times throughout the year, or to mark some special anniversary. The Parliament of Kiribati opens itself to the whole public once a year to coincide with the date when the Parliament first opened in October 2000. The Estonian Riigikogu holds an Open House every 23rd April to celebrate the day of its founding in 1919. The opportunity is open to any citizen to visit the parliament building and go on a conducted tour. A special question time is arranged for the guests in the parliamentary chamber with members of the Government participating and answering questions. The parliament also holds information days in rural areas and counties, where local people are able to question members on their work.

This practice of taking parliament out to the people is a typical feature in some countries. Botswana has instituted a ‘Parliament on Wheels’ in which members of the Speaker’s and Information offices tour villages to explain the role of parliament in society. South Africa has organised ‘democracy roadshows’ whose aim has been ‘to take Parliament to communities that do not have ready access to Parliament so as to educate and inform people of how laws are made and how citizens can participate in law-making processes.’ Its second chamber, the National Council of the Provinces, locates itself in a different province for a week each year, to hold meetings with various stakeholders, especially from rural areas. The Great State Hural of Mongolia has established permanent ‘parliamentary advocacy centres’ in five districts of the capital and nine provinces, with the following objectives:

  • to develop relations between members of parliament and their voters, and between local administrators and civil society, in a systematic way;
  • to organise local training sessions, public discussions, hearings and seminars;
  • to involve local media and elected officials in advocacy work relating to parliamentary activity.

These outreach programmes are not just a feature of developing societies, as the example of Sweden shows:

In 2003 Riksdag ‘branches’ were opened in three towns: Gothenburg, Malmo and Sundsvall. Together with the municipal libraries of each town, the Riksdag has equipped a section of the library with screens, printed educational and information material, an IT workstation for connecting to the Riksdag website, and the opportunity of following web broadcasts from it. Members of the Riksdag from each region also use the Riksdag ‘branches’ to meet voters and hold debates.

   Informing and involving young people

Most parliaments acknowledge that they have a special problem in interesting the young in representative politics. This is not because young people lack any interest in politics as such. Many are actively involved in advocacy causes and single-issue campaigns. Yet of all age groups they are the least likely to vote, and their alienation from parliamentary politics is particularly marked.

In view of this situation, parliaments are now making strenuous efforts to engage the interests of school pupils in their work. These initiatives take many forms. Some are school-based, some are located in parliament itself, and some involve a combination of the two.

   School-based initiatives

The most basic of these is teaching about parliament as part of the school curriculum. The South African Parliament is developing a civic education training programme for young adults to show ‘how Parliament functions, how laws are made and how the public can engage with the law-making process. It is envisaged that this programme will eventually constitute part of the school curriculum.’ Another of its initiatives has been the production of an award-winning comic book, A Day in Parliament, which has been distributed to every school in the country.

Figure 3.3: A Day in Parliament Comic Book

Figure 3.3: A Day in Parliament Comic Book

Source: Parliament of South Africa (1999). A Day in Parliament

The Iceland Parliament has a special website for schoolchildren aged 13-15. ‘The users can interact with cartoon style figures, answer questions by searching the web for information and be graded instantly for their effort when they send in their answers. It has proven popular and is widely used as a teaching tool.’ The Finnish Parliament has established an electronic game ‘Legislators’ in which groups of schoolchildren can virtually enact legislation in the same way as is done in the real Eduskunta, playing different roles between them.

Many long-established democracies have seen it as an essential part of such a curriculum that school students should experience what it is like to run their own parliaments, in the form of an elected assembly or such like, to help decide issues of school policy and discipline. These can also make an important contribution to democracy-building in countries seeking to consolidate a more democratic culture. The Grand National Assembly of Turkey has recently joined forces with the education ministry in a ‘Parliaments of Schools’ project, to establish such assemblies in schools throughout the country.

The project has been launched to familiarise the students of primary and secondary education with the culture of election and to be elected, to make them handle their problems with their own perspectives, to build consciousness about functional democracy including the concepts of public participation and tolerance, as well as to spread the culture of democracy to all the segments of society. This project, initiated in 2004, has been implemented in 200 primary schools and 100 secondary schools……The objective here is to spread this system in a short period of time to all schools in Turkey.

The project has attracted considerable media attention, and the Assembly Speaker attended some of the first elections to underline the importance and support attached to the project by the National Assembly.

   Parliament-based programmes

These programmes can also take different forms. Many parliaments have arrangements for regular visits from school students, on a weekly or monthly basis, in which students from across the country can attend plenary sessions and committee meetings, question ministers and meet with their own assembly members. Others run ‘young people’s sessions’, in which students learn parliamentary procedure through organising their own debates and question sessions. The Norwegian Storting was planning to open an events centre in the autumn of 2005, in which school pupils will conduct simulations of the parliamentary process. ‘They will act as parliamentarians in fictive plenary meetings, meetings in standing committees and party groups, they will write the necessary documents, and they will be confronted with the press.....This will give them a very vivid impression of parliamentary democracy at work.’

A method which combines both school-based activity and a programme in parliament involves school meetings to elect representatives to a National Youth Parliament. Poland, for instance, has an annual Young Parliamentarians meeting, in which young deputies are elected from schools across the country and hold debates in parliament according to parliamentary procedure. A more elaborate version has been developed by the Danish Folketing:

The purpose of the Youth Parliament is to help young people from Denmark, the Faeroes Islands and Greenland to understand the democratic process better by letting them draw up their own Bills and proposals for legislation, which they debate in committees and in full session in the Folketing……Information on the Youth Parliament is forwarded to teachers of grade 8 and 9 students at all schools. Each class wishing to participate must draft a Bill collectively.

The Danish Parliament then selects 60 Bills according to the following criteria:

  • contents of the bills
  • variation (coverage of the widest possible number of subjects)
  • wide geographical coverage ensuring that schools from all parts of the country are represented.
The 60 Bills are distributed according to the relevant standing committees. The initial part of the committee work is done electronically. The second part of the committee work is done at Christiansborg Palace at the meeting of the Youth Parliament……Each of the 12 committees will discuss five Bills, of which one from each committee is selected by the participants for discussion and vote in the Chamber. Each committee also frames a question which will be put orally to a Minister during Question Time.

The above comprise only a small selection of the initiatives being carried out by parliaments in this important area. Beyond school, St. Kitts runs a Youth Parliament for young people, representing various youth groups. ‘They interact with Parliamentarians, the Speaker of the House and the Clerk of the House to learn about Parliament and its work……Their debates are carried live on radio and are recorded for television viewing.’ Worth mentioning also is the idea of taking parliament to young people where they are gathered for their own events. In Hungary the presence of members of Parliament and other public institutions is arranged at Diaksziget (Students’ Island), the largest youth music festival in Central Europe. Here ‘students can listen to political lectures and can discuss their problems with politicians.’


Copyright © 2006 Inter-Parliamentary Union