News | Sunday, 13 September 2009
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Malta’s political child soldiers

Regulations against the exploitation of children in political advertising are now in the pipeline. But is it too late for an already-brainwashed generation? RAPHAEL VASSALLO on the ultimate casualty of Maltese politics: childhood.

Her face was on billboards all over Malta before the March 2008 election, and the same child was also paraded before the crowds at one mass meeting after another, where she symbolically presented the Prime Minister with a flower.
Had the purpose been to advertise a commercial product or service, both the billboard and the televised “flower ritual” would have been subject to the Broadcasting Code For the Protection of Minors (S.L. 350.05), which states (among numerous other provisos) that children “shall not be used to present products or services which they could not be expected to buy themselves”; and above all that “advertising shall not cause moral or physical detriment to minors”.
But in this case, the product on offer is Maltese politics – so a whole new code of laws suddenly applies. Where the interests of political parties are concerned, it seems the protection of minors is no longer an urgent priority in the eyes of the law. And just to illustrate how “all is fair in love, war and Maltese electoral campaigns,” shortly before the European election last June, the Labour Party unveiled a spoof version of the same political billboard: also using a child, but this time with a sour expression and a wilted flower in her hand.

Policy guidelines
Is this sort of thing legal in Malta? Yes... for now. But things may well change in the near future, as Children’s Commissioner Carmen Zammit – who is understood to have been less than pleased with both the above-mentioned billboards – is currently discussing new regulations with the Broadcasting Authority.
“We are working on a set of policy guidelines to regulate the use of children in electoral campaigns,” she said, adding that the new guidelines are expected to be unveiled later this year: possibly as early as next month.
The aim is by and large to safeguard the interests of children in such cases; however, Zammit cautioned that not every instance in which children are included in a political context necessarily amounts to “exploitation”.
“We have to distinguish between using children for purely political ends and encouraging them to express themselves in areas that concern them directly,” she said.
One example involves a recent news item on the PN-owned NET TV, in which the Prime Minister was interviewed on a wide range of “adult” subjects – including health, environment and even economic policy – by schoolchildren aged between 10 and 13.
Zammit explained that if the purpose was to broaden existing national discussions in order to include children, it did not necessarily infringe the rights of the children concerned.
“On the contrary: there exists in Europe at the moment a drive to involve children in discussions on issues which are of direct relevance to their own lives,” she said.
Without going into the merits of this particular news item, Zammit stressed that it would be unwise to draw up any blanket policy which would preclude children from inclusion in all political discourse.
But the Children’s Commissioner did express concern that it is only a fine line that separates “acceptable” from “unacceptable” use of children in political propaganda material.

Parental consent
PN secretary general Paul Borg Olivier defends his party’s use of children in its political advertisements ahead of the 2008 elections, arguing that the “flower billboard” was cautious in its portrayal of the child concerned.
“When children are projected in a positive way and through a positive message, the message goes beyond the mere ‘use’ of the child,” he said in response to MaltaToday’s questions. “On the contrary, it is sending a strong positive message to society and showing a complete trust in the future generation.”
Borg Olivier also stresses that the PN has a strict policy where the appearance of children in political material is concerned.
“All adult consent is sought, and children are always projected in a positive manner,” he said. “This contrasts with the PL negative campaign in the EP 2009 election campaign, when a made-up version of the young girl on the PN’s general election manifesto was used to portray a negative message...”
However, while the PN views its own message as an inherently “positive” one, denoting “trust” in future generations, the party is less openly concerned with the possible effect such mass exposure may have on the individual child concerned: especially in the context of a fiercely political environment, with its unmistakable reality of active discrimination.
Besides, it is debatable in the extreme whether “parental consent” is enough to guarantee that the child will not be exposed to potentially harmful effects, intended or otherwise. This in turn raises a legal principle that applies in most areas where children are involved: for instance, in any given separation or custody case, the court will invariably be guided in its final decision, not by the parents’ wishes or opinions, but rather by “the best interest of the child”.
Applied to the political context, the question arises as a matter of course. Parental permission aside: is it in the ‘best interest of the child’ to be publicly associated with a political campaign?

Branding children
Child psychologist Dr Mireille Vila urges extreme caution in exposing children to politics at such an early age.
“Children are less cognitively mature than adults and as such, have a reduced capacity for autonomy and self-determination,” she told MaltaToday. “When parents give their consent and allow their children to participate in political advertising, they might be unaware of the long term effects such a decision might have. Participating in advertising sends out the message that a person himself/herself supports the product being advertised, or that he/she adheres to the beliefs of the campaign she is participating in. In my opinion, children might be branded as belonging to a particular political party; and considering the Maltese context, this can place a child in a vulnerable position.”
Dr Vila points out how the unconscious “branding” of a child may have unforeseen effects, which may sometimes surface later in life.
“Children can be unconsciously be branded by others. This can affect communication patterns and the person’s relationships. Another issue to consider is the child’s identity: participating in a campaign can have effects on one’s ideas about his/herself and subsequently might limit his/her freedom of choice.”
Given children’s limited comprehension of political advertising persuasion, Vila see them as significantly more vulnerable to subliminal or indirect forms of political advertising – another area which is strictly governed by legislation insofar as commercial interests are concerned, but overlooked entirely in the case of political advertising.
“Most children under the age of eight lack the ability to effectively evaluate the claims of such campaigns and therefore tend to accept the information conveyed as truthful, accurate and unbiased.”
Apart from the possible effects on the individual child, Vila argues that such advertising may also impact adult perceptions of childhood itself.
“Ethically speaking, it is important that children are not used as objects. In order to avoid this, parents and children must be involved, and allowed to refuse behaving in ways that they feel uncomfortable with. The role of being developmentally appropriate cannot be stressed enough.”


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