Toomas Sildam: Pre-election outdoor political ad ban entirely pointless ({{commentsTotal}})

Journalist Toomas Sildam.
Journalist Toomas Sildam. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Politicians, end the ban on outdoor political ads ahead of elections. The restriction that went into effect 13 years ago according to which outdoor ads may not be used during the 40 days immediately preceding elections is idiotic, meaningless and entirely unnecessary, writes journalist Toomas Sildam.

Following the most recent Riigikogu elections, when the Free Party's top candidate Artur Talvik stuck his election poster on his personal vehicle right before Election Day, the Supreme Court of Estonia decided that this did not constitute prohibited outdoor advertising. Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise believed that this court ruling will bring outdoor political ads to the street immediately preceding Election Day as well. And so Madise has repeatedly advised the Riigikogu to lose the ban on outdoor political ads during the active campaigning period, as it does not serve its original purpose — to make election campaigns more meaningful.

The Riigikogu, however, has thus far remained stubbornly silent on the matter.

The ban on outdoor ads is from a time before the social media explosion. The most recent elections illustrated how political parties increasingly utilize opportunities provided by social media specifically. And the police in Estonia clarified that although Facebook and other social media channels do constitute a part of the figurative public space, the ban on outdoor political advertising nonetheless does not extend to social media, and politicians may continue to advertise themselves there.

So ads on social media, even a week or a few days before the elections are allowed, but ads on billboards next to the local grocery store, for example, are banned? Does anyone understand the logic here? I certainly don't. Just as I don't believe that we should act as though we were ashamed of elections, and were forcing this celebration of democracy aside and out of the public sphere.

Consider the first days of next March for a moment. On March 3, Estonia will be electing the next Riigikogu, and European Parliament elections will be taking place next May. This means that on March 1, every party can put up signs and billboards for its politicians on the streets. Should anyone complain, and the police have to constantly show up to determine whether an outdoor ad is permissible or illicit, one can simply smile and say that an ad is part of the European Parliament election campaign. And so the Riigikogu's indecisiveness simply becomes wind in the sails of advertisers and demonstrates how easy it is to sidestep the law.

Allies of the Chancellor of Justice and the voice of reason currently in the Riigikogu are the Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL), the Center Party and the Reform Party. Between the three of them, they would have enough votes to lose the ban on outdoor advertising ahead of elections. But as the Social Democratic Party (SDE) is against this, IRL and the Center Party don't want to risk clashing swords with their coalition partner.

Namely, the Social Democrats haven't given up the approach described by Indrek Saar, then party secretary general, in October 2014. At the time, Saar interpreted outdoor ads as littering up the public space with utter brainwashing, which creates unnecessary background noise, speak nothing of it being costly to society.

The Social Democrats are in favor of introducing a ceiling on election advertising costs — that a political party cannot spend more than, for example, €1 million on advertising. The hope is that this would curb the size advantage of large political parties. But if two elections are within a short period of time, how should these expenses be accounted for?

This spring, the Riigikogu still has the opportunity to allow the voice of reason to be heard and repeal the ban on outdoor political advertising. This is not a part of the election system, and so the rule that changes cannot be made under one year in advance would not apply.

Politicians, please, get this done.

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According to the Local Government Council Election Act, political outdoor advertising is prohibited as of the final day of candidate registration, 40 days ahead of Election Day.

During this period, the advertising of independent candidates, political parties or candidates running on a party list, election coalitions or candidates running on a coalition list, their logos and other distinctive imagery may not be advertised on a building, construction, inside or outside public transportation vehicles or taxis. Other forms of political outdoor advertising are banned as well.

According to the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), exceptions to this ban include balloons, souvenirs, flyers, handheld flags, shirts and similar items, outdoor ads in political parties' colors if they lack other details associated with the upcoming elections, or party or election coalition ads featuring individuals not running in the current elections. The ban also notably does not extend to social media either.

Editor: Aili Vahtla



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