LIMA, Peru – Good-government groups are using the Internet and interactive mapping technology to chart how mass media affect elections — using Peru's rugged, village-dotted countryside as a testing ground.
The project — the brainchild of the Carter Center, the Canadian Foundation for the Americas and the University of Calgary — aims to support campaign-finance reform and democracy-building efforts with an interactive Web page.
After mapping out last month's parliamentary elections in Canada, the groups unveiled a Peruvian version Thursday at a seminar attended by representatives from government agencies, nonprofit civic organizations and local electoral and media watchdog groups.
"The technology is quite advanced and expensive initially, and we wanted to make that investment for the good of democracy in the Americas," said Shelley McConnell, senior associate director of the Carter Center's Americas Program.
The groups are negotiating with Peru's Catholic University to help manage and maintain the Web page, which uses mapping software to overlay the location of newspapers, radio and TV stations with demographic data about Peru's 26 million people, including their income, education level, language — Spanish, Quechua or Aymara — and how they voted in the 2001 elections.
The Web site unfortunately lacks data showing recent contributions to political parties or money spent on political advertising for Peru's presidential and congressional elections on April 9. But McConnell said the hope is that Peruvians will be able to develop this tool to provide more timely information before future elections.
Polls show most Peruvians have little faith in democratic institutions and tend to believe their politicians are crooks, in cahoots with vested business interests, including the media.
"The lack of transparency in politics in general and in media in particular is huge in this country," said Jaime Montoya, director of Citizen Participation, a democracy building program sponsored by Peru's Congress.
The Web project is too technical for the average Peruvian to glean information about the upcoming elections, but it would be excellent for political watchdog groups to spot trends in radio and TV coverage of candidates, Montoya said on the sidelines of the seminar.
"Like everywhere else in the world, the big owners of communication chains aren't absolutely neutral or transparent. They respond to certain interests," he said.
Peru recently passed a campaign finance reform law that requires political parties to reveal contributions and for broadcast media to offer equal advertising rates and free air time to all candidates during the final 30 days before the vote.
But the measure has met resistance. The president of Peru's National Society of Radio and TV, Alberto Cabello, challenged the free air time stipulation last month in the Constitutional Tribunal, Peru's highest court, which has yet to rule on the matter.
Peru's media are often openly partisan and offer a bruising battle ground for candidates.
This week, presidential candidate Ollanta Humala's nationalist party accused front-runner Lourdes Flores' party of conspiring with two TV stations to accuse Humala, a former army officer, of human rights violations in 1992 when he commanded a counterinsurgency outpost. The stations denied the accusation.
Flores, a conservative, pro-business former congresswoman, also dismissed the idea that Peru's media were working together to support her candidacy. Laughing, she pointed out that she has been the subject of recent attacks in several Lima newspapers.
The U.S.-based Carter Center was a key player in monitoring Peru's fraud-riddled vote in 2000, in which former President Alberto Fujimori won the first round with 1 million more ballots cast than there were voters.
Throughout that campaign, opposition candidates accused Fujimori and his now-jailed spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, of buying off Peru's media to run lurid tabloid and TV attacks against them and blocking their access to TV and radio advertising.
The thrust of the allegations were later confirmed by grainy videotapes secretly recorded by Montesinos, showing him bribing media owners with piles of cash or offering to fix court cases or tax problems in exchange for editorial control.
Fujimori's 10-year authoritarian regime collapsed months later in a mushrooming corruption scandal, and he is now fighting extradition from Chile to face a dozen charges of graft, abuse of power and human rights violations.