The Election Commission (EC) on 8th April had released guidelines for election coverage across the print, television and social media, reflecting the increased penetration and proliferation of new media platforms in the country.
Broadly, the guidelines outline the need for neutral and objective coverage of the elections and encourage all media stakeholders to exercise utmost restraint and shun paid news a phenomenon in which media present political parties and candidates in a favorable light in return for money.
The Press Council of India (PCI) has already released guidelines for the print media, urging publications to report objectively, without any communal or caste bias, to refrain from publishing false or unverified allegations against any candidate/party, and not to publish ads on the achievements of a party in power or government at the cost of the public exchequer.
News channels need to disclose their political affiliation with any party/candidate and must resist all political or financial pressures that may affect coverage of the elections, as per guidelines issued by the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), the self-regulatory body for news channels. Reports related to opinion polls need disclosures on who commissioned, conducted and paid for the broadcast.
New media guidelines set by the EC include disclosure of Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts as well as campaigning expenditure incurred through the Internet.
“This includes payment made to internet companies and websites for carrying advertisements and also campaign related operational expenditure on making of creative content,” the media handbook said.
Legal provisions related to election campaigning include restriction on opinion polls and exit polls from the first day of voting up to the last one, till half an hour after polling ends, with respect to multi-phased elections.
Role of Media in elections
The media has an important role to play during any election period. In addition to reporting on the performance of incumbents, providing a platform for debates among candidates, allowing candidates to communicate their message to the electorate, and reporting on campaign developments, the media should inform voters on how to exercise their rights, monitor the electoral process, including election-day proceedings, and report the results to the public.
Freedom of expression and freedom of media are essential to any democratic process and the assessment of any media coverage of election campaign is a fundamental part of election observation methodology.
During any elections, media provide an invaluable channel of information between the contestants and the public. By providing an area for public debates and informing citizens of the policies and platforms of candidates and parties, the media enable voters to make an informed decision when they cast their ballots.
Numerous steps have been taken by the Election Commission to ensure that the media operate in a fair, objective and balanced manner when performing their proper function in any democratic society. Some of the malaise in media that invite severe criticism from political parties and the common public are given below.
Paid News has been defined by PCI as - Any news or analysis appearing in any media (Print & Electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration. Press Council of India guidelines say- news should be clearly demarcated from advertisements by printing disclaimers, should be strictly enforced by all publications. As far as news is concerned, it must always carry a credit line and should be set in a typeface that would distinguish it from advertisements.
Political parties and media groups had approached the Commission requesting for strong steps against Paid News. Parliament also discussed the issue. There was consensus among all political parties in their meeting with the Commission on 4th October 2010 and again on 9th March, 2011 that stringent measures should be taken against Paid News. Paid News misleads the public and hampers the ability of people to form correct opinions.
Paid News causes undue influence on voters and also affects their Right to Information. Paid News seeks to circumvent election expenditure laws/ ceiling. Paid News adversely affects level playing field.
A day of polling has already gone by and with many more to follow, politicians will leave nothing, to not only catch voter’s attention but also to demean their counterparts.
Recently on 14th April the Information and Public Relations (I&PR) Department of Andhra Pradesh Government said that it had identified seven fictitious television channels which were given government ads. Dana Kishore, Commissioner I&PR in a press release stated that, an amount of Rs. 14.15 lakh had been already recovered from an empanelled advertising agency which had routed the ads through these seven channels.
Senior journalist and editorial director of India TV Qamar Waheed Naqvi recently had resigned from the post in protest against an allegedly “fixed” interview of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.
Taking advantage of the this incident Congress on 15th April had moved the Election Commission seeking stern action against Narendra Modi and BJP, dubbing as “paid news” “Aap ki Adalat” programme on India TV featuring the BJP PM candidate.
K C Mittal, Secretary, AICC Legal Department told the EC that “The sole purpose, as can be concluded from tone and tenor of the questions put to him, and the entire programme, was to give unfair and undue electoral advantage to Modi.” “The programme was calculated, conceived and comprehended by and on behalf of BJP and Shri Modi for electoral gains. It was scribbled for Modi, the BJP prime ministerial candidate”.
He further stated that, “It is not only a paid news but total misuse of the channel by BJP for their election campaign”, he told the EC, insisting that the programme was designed for election campaign for Modi and BJP and “not as a news item or routine programme”.
Another incident came from Jhalawar-Baran Lok Sabha seat where Congress candidates Pramod Bhaya had filed a complaint with the Election Commission against a TV news channel for alleged bias towards his rival and BJP nominee Dushyant Singh, son of chief minister Vasundhara Raje.
In a written complaint filed on 12th April, Bhaya alleged that the TV channel during its prime time show 11th April first ran a ticker saying that Singh would win by over a margin of two lakh votes, followed by a ticker saying that Bhaya had already accepted defeat.
Bhaya demanded action against the TV news channel and its head for "paid news", besides registration of a police complaint for defaming him.
In the run up to the Indian general election, 2014, various organisations carry out opinion polling to gauge voting intention in India. These opinion polls are always criticised by the politicians or political parties, their view is that these surveys are unauthentic and presented under the influence of different people. Recently, a leading news channel not just predicted around 230 seats for NDA, but also chose post-poll allies to raise the number to 280, and anointed Narendra Modi as PM. It was conducted days before candidates had been announced by any of the parties.
Either these surveys are motivated or their methodologies are wrong. If the methodologies are wrong, they need serious correction. If there’s no attempt at correction, clearly the problem is motivation. Media as a pillar of democracy cannot let itself be compromised.
Pre-election opinion polls should be banned so that voters are not misled. People barely believe in such propaganda, but because opinion polls make the media structurally weaker, they would best be done away with. Although Election Commission of India on 15th November 2013 had already sent a letter to government to enact a law banning the release of their result after the notification of election.
This view was articulated in a letter of the Union Ministry for Law & Justice which had in September 2013 asked the Commission for its view on whether the ban on opinion polls should be effective from the date of announcement or notification of an election, how much will this be followed is yet to be seen. But Arun Jaitley leader of opposition house in Upper House condemns this Election Commission move to ban opinion poll immediately after notification of election. His contention to condemn the move is that any restriction would “fall in the realm of a restriction on the Fundamental Right to Freedom and Expression guaranteed in Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution.”
EC moves to curb malaises in media
Election Watch Reporter
In a proposition to avoid any flouting of rules or law breach, the Election Commission of India has launched an online app called Election Watch Reporter. The app allows citizens to become a watchdog and report any wrongdoings. “If you have an android cell phone, you could be an observer of the Election Commission,” said Election Commissioner HS Brahma while launching the new software. “Citizens can be the eyes of the Election Commission of India,” he added. Election Watch Reporter (EWR) enables citizens to send complaints about violations of electoral law or over expenditure by candidates during their election campaigns. The eight categories under which the complaints or reports can be filed are, Media Advertising, Posters and Hoardings, Liquor or Drugs Distribution, Cash, Gifts or Coupons Distribution, Election Rally, Misuse of Official Vehicles, Non Deposit of Firearms, Others.