Elections in India: the Changing Interface between Media and Politics

Subba Lakshmi Mali Reddy, India

Media has been playing a key role in ensuring free and fair elections in India ever since the country attained independence. With free media, democratic polity and a federal structure of government, India has experienced a long evolution of electoral practices which has enriched its democratic ethos. India is not just the largest democracy in the world but she has also marvelled at the massive exercise of conducting free and fair elections. Out of a total 715 million in the registered electorate, 400 million voters turned out to elect 543 Members of Parliament during the general elections to the Lok Sabha (parliament) in April 2009.

The Election Commission of India, the independent body to conduct elections at national and regional levels in the country, has improved the election process by taking up reforms, introducing codes of conduct for candidates and political parties, and ensuring equal opportunities for all candidates in the election fray. The media and civil society organizations have been playing an important part in all phases of the transformation to ensure free and fair elections in the country.

Polity - the basic pillar of democracy

India is the largest state by population with a democratically-elected government in the world. Politics in India works within a framework of a federal parliamentary multi-party system. The President of India is the formal head of state and holds substantial reserve powers while the Prime Minister of the country is the head of government enforcing executive powers. The federal legislative power is vested in both the government and the two chambers of Parliament, while the judiciary is independent of both the executive and the legislature. The vibrant and free media in India is considered to be the fourth estate of democracy. Both print and electronic media have been playing the role of watchdog of democracy, while enjoying almost unlimited access to information and without major regulations imposed upon their operation.

Elections - a gigantic exercise

Given the huge electorate, the gigantic exercise of conducting elections in India involves several phases and a number of step-by-step processes. These processes in each phase start from announcement of election dates and pass through the nomination stage, campaigning, polling and counting of votes before concluding with submission of the list of successful candidates to the executive head of the state or the centre, leading to the formation of a new government. The print and electronic media are allowed to access information about all these processes for reporting. The access is unrestricted including entry into polling stations and counting centres all along the election process so as to ensure free and fair polls. The Election Commission has also been working closely with the media in checking criminalisation of politics, computerisation of electoral rolls, providing electors with photo identity cards, simplifying the procedure for maintenance of accounts and a variety of measures for strict compliance of the Model Code of Conduct.

Media - glorious past but present in question

The media in India has a glorious tradition of safeguarding the democratic rights of her people and exposing all kinds of injustices and inequities by playing the role as a watchdog of democracy. When democratic elections are a relatively new phenomenon for many countries in the world, the free media in India has been educating and informing voters in a non-partisan manner and contributing to the opinion formation of the electorate. The overall aim of media is fair and objective reporting especially during campaigning, providing information to the electorate about the political parties, their programmes and candidates. Besides, media also provides information about the constituencies and various human development index parameters, offering chances for people to comment on the work done by their elected representatives and providing feedbacks to the candidate. Emerging as a potentially powerful force, electronic media has also been playing a similar role to that of print media in conducting free and fair elections.

Though there are no specific laws or regulations governing media activities during elections especially during campaigning, the Election Commission of India has been issuing guidelines from time to time to prevent the media from influencing voters for the wrong reasons. Political parties and candidates tend to find the media, especially television, more and more important for campaigning and would seek as much media exposure as possible. With cable TV invading into the drawing rooms of many families especially during the post-reform period, television channels are widely regarded as the most important instrument for campaigning and communication to the voters due to its audience size and widespread coverage.

Public media - special duty for equal opportunity

The government-owned public broadcasters, All India Radio and Doordarshan, have a special duty to broadcast election statements of competing parties and their candidates in a balanced manner. It is generally accepted that the publicly funded stations have an obligation to allow parties and candidates to communicate directly with the electorate on an equal basis, whereas the private media tends to publish or broadcast statements of the parties and candidates they prefer. Here, the scope of misusing media will appear as no specific regulations are in force to curb misuse. Newspapers and the majority of television channels will provide their space and airtime to specific candidates of their choice.

The state owned public broadcasters have a set of codes to avoid undue preferences given to any of the political parties including the one in power. The guiding principle is to offer equal opportunity to all the parties and candidates. Known as AIR Code (All India Radio Code), it incorporates the directions issued by the Election Commission from time to time, and provides guidance to journalists in their respective newsrooms during elections. A copy of the code is enclosed in the Annex. The AIR Code has become a reference document whenever media regulation is discussed by the authorities, and also when fresh guidelines are to be issued to media on any issue including elections.

It is crucial in the first instance to ensure that all parties, national or regional, and their candidates enjoy access to the media, in particular radio and television, as even the illiterate voter can learn about political parties and their candidates. It means that a broadcaster is not entitled to influence public opinion by different treatment of one or the other candidate or party. But it is often the broadcaster, especially in the case of newspapers and private television channels, which decides who would be featured in special stories or gain access to debates and discussion programmes. In the absence of clear regulations, manipulation often takes place during the planning for news reports and discussion programmes, or even for non-news programmes such as entertainment shows and movies. Propaganda is being disseminated in the name of objective public information by the media.

The media has also undergone revolutionary changes due to growing competition and the advent of new media. New phenomena such as growing use of new technology and new styles of presentation of news and opinions have started to diminish the difference between editorial and commercial space. Space is being sold by journalists to individuals to publish or broadcast favorable reports or interviews under the garb of news, paving way for a new phenomenon of “paid news”. The gradual emergence of this unfair practice is causing concern nationwide among the institutions of democracy, professional bodies of media and the polity, as it is eroding the basic ethos of democracy as well as media principles.

Paid News – manipulating the free press

Blatant misuse of print and electronic media by parties and candidates contesting the general elections came to light during elections in 2004 and 2009. The practice used areas such as business news to institutionalize paid news in print and electronic media to influence public opinion especially during the elections. The journalists became news “managers” succumbing to pressure from media executives.

The issue was raised by the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists (APUWJ). A two-member sub-committee of the Press Council of India defined “paid news” as “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print or electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration.” Paid news provides scope to publish or telecast an advertisement by a candidate pronouncing his or her achievements, chances of winning and popularity levels during the campaign. The advertisement normally appears in the form of news along with the dateline and credit like any other news story on TV, thus misleading the reader or viewer into believing that it is a news story produced by the local correspondent. Hobnobbing with politicians, the management of the daily or channel collects money for the “report” according to its advertisement tariff without acknowledging that it is an advertisement. This provides wealthier candidates with an edge over other candidates. Such practices deny equal opportunity for other candidates, defeating the very principle of fair elections.

The unaccounted advertisements dressing up as news are causing much concern. Though unaccounted, they are estimated to be worth 50 billion Rupees per month in the 2009 general election. It raises questions about conducting free and fair elections, which should not provide more opportunities for those with money and power. The top ministers and leaders of national and regional parties plus independent candidates were no exception to this practice. Reams of newsprint published ‘news packages’, positive stories and interviews about the candidates who were ready to pay. However, neither the candidates nor media management acknowledged the reports as advertisements and accounted for them in their books. Professional bodies like Editor’s Guild, Indian Newspaper Society, Indian Broadcasting Foundation, the News Broadcasters Association, Press Council of India and even the Election Commission of India have observed that a majority of national and vernacular newspapers as well as many television channels were involved in the activity of surrogate advertising especially during elections and deplored such practices.

The Election Commission of India has some powers defined by the Constitution of India, acts of Parliament and judicial pronouncements to deal with the problem of paid news. It has issued measures to its Chief Electoral Officers (CEOs) in the states during June 2010 to check paid news during elections. And the same have been implemented by the state CEOs in the by-elections held subsequently. However, the measures and guidelines are not sufficient.

In a bid to check the phenomenon of paid news, a special two-member sub-committee of the Press Council of India has recommended in the last week of July 2010 an amendment to Representation of the People’s Act 1951, to declare any payment for publication of news as a malpractice. Meanwhile, the 23-memebr Press Council of India chaired by G N Ray, a retired Supreme Court judge, has unanimously adopted a report of the drafting committee which sought to make changes to the law by bringing the electronic media under its purview. Besides asking the Election Commission to set up a special unit to receive and take action on complaints about “paid news” in the run-up to elections, it further asked the Government to set up a committee comprising Members of Parliament from both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha to hold hearings for suggesting changes in the Representation of the People’s Act to prevent the practice of paying for news coverage in newspapers and television channels.

Conclusion

The practice of paid news or surrogate political advertising is not limited to election campaigns. Though it is not something new for the country, the enormity of its spread and the manner in which it is being institutionalized is causing much concern among journalists and the professional bodies, not least the political parties and the government. Nevertheless, guidelines can be worked out to increase transparency and improve monitoring of the electoral process.

There is a need to have uniform regulations and guidelines for both public and private as well as print and electronic media to ensure a level playing field for all parties and candidates during campaigning. A single initiative or measure cannot improve the situation. A combination of efforts is required to install a system of “checks and balances”. This includes self regulation by the media itself and guidelines from professional bodies such as academics, independent researchers, civil society groups and regulatory agencies like the Press Council of India, the Information Commission, the Election Commission of India and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

Annex

All India Radio Code

Broadcast on All India Radio by individuals will not per:

1. Criticism of friendly countries;

2. Attack on religions or communities;

3. Anything obscene or defamatory;

4. Incitement to violence or anything against maintenance of law & order

5. Anything amounting to contempt of court;

6. Aspersions against the integrity of the President, Governors and the Judiciary.

7. Attack on a political party by name;

8. Hostile criticism of any State or the Center;

9. Anything showing disrespect to the Constitution or advocating change in the Constitution by violence; but advocating changes in a constitutional way should not be debarred.

10. Appeal for funds except for the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund, at a time of External Emergency or if the Country is faced with a natural calamity such a floods, earthquake or cyclone.

11. Direct publicity for or on behalf of an individual or organization which is likely to benefit only that individual or organization.

12. Trade names in broadcasts which amount to advertising directly (except in Commercial Services).

Footnote:

1. The code applies to criticism in the nature of personal tirade either of a friendly Government or of political party or of the Central Government or any State Government. But it does not debar reference to and/or dispassionate discussion of policies pursued by any of them.

2. If a Station Director finds that the above Code has not been respected in any particular by an intending broadcaster he will draw the latter’s attention to the passage objected to. If the intending broadcaster refuses to accept the Station Director’s suggestions and modify his accordingly, the Station Director will be justified in refusing his or her broadcast.

3. Cases of unresolved differences of opinion between a Minister of State Government and the Station Director about the interpretation of the Code with regard to a talk to be broadcast by the former will be referred to the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India who will decide finally whether or not any change in the text of the talk is necessary in order to avoid violation of the Code.

Code of Conduct for Television/Radio Broadcasts in Connection with Elections

The Election Commission (EC) recognises the significance of television and radio in the coverage of elections. Their reach is widespread and impact substantial. On the one hand, the electronic media can be misused to favour one party or another. But on the other hand, the EC recognises that electronic media can, if used properly be an important source of information for voters across the country. It can provide the widest first hand education for voters on political parties, their symbols, various leaders and different issues in the election. This is why electronic media all over the world is the single biggest source of information of voters in terms of debates, campaign, coverage etc.

It is essential therefore that a model code of conduct is established for electronic media both to ensure that it is not misused as well as to ensure that it be used in the best interest of democracy and the voter.

Listed below are the Dos and Don’ts for election coverage on electronic media.

DONTs

1. There should be no coverage of any election speeches or other material that incites violence, against one religion, against one language, against one group etc.

2. In any constituency, only one candidate should not be projected. While it is not necessary to cover every single candidate (as some constituencies may have several candidates), at least the more important candidates should be covered in any reports from a constituency.

3. The following could be covered in a balanced and fair manner:-

  • Campaigning and excerpts from campaign speeches.
  • Symbols, banners, flags and other campaign materials of parties.
  • Results of opinion polls by non-political, professional organisations with a proven track record.
  • Party manifestoes (critical analysis of which is also perfectly legitimate.)
  • Candidates and their views in different constituencies across the country.
  • The positions taken by the main parties on different issues important to the electorate.
  • Debates between major parties and candidates.
  • Analysis of previous voting patterns, victory margins, swings etc.

4. By a balanced and fair it is meant that among the major political parties:-

  • No political parties should be given substantially more coverage than others. The balance need not be achieved in any single day or in a single story, but over a reasonable period of time, say one week.
  • Balance does not mean each party must get exactly the same air time to the last second, but parties should be given broadly the same amount of time.
  • Balance implies that to no reasonable person should it appear that one political party is being projected to the exclusion of others.

5. Procedures:

  • All producers must record a copy of their programme off air for use as reference in case of any disputes.
  • The EC shall be the final arbiter in any dispute.

6. The final interpretation of any disputed passage or story should be with

  • The Election Commission in Case of disagreement with the broadcaster, one authority could be nominated by the Election Commission who could take a decision immediately when approached.

Subsequent clarifications:

  • Opinion/Gallop Polls are not to be published/broadcast during the period 48 hrs before each phase of the polling till the completion of the phase of the polling.
  • Exit poll results are not to be published/broadcast before the completion of each phase of polling.

Ms Subba Lakshmi Mali Reddy works as a correspondence for All India Radio