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Mainstream, VOL52, No. 22, May 24, 2014

Media Tactics renders Election Commission’s Code of Conduct Futile

Friday 23 May 2014

MEDIA

by Anil Chamadia

This article, written before the end of the election process, retains its validity even after full declaration of the poll results.

The Code of Conduct (CC) imposed by the Election Commission (EC) could be effective only if the people, institutions and political outfits feel constrained while attempting to violate it for their vested interests. Since the days of the First Press Commission till 2002, the Press Council of India (PCI) came out with various guidelines, each time with renewed ones, asking the media to report the communal situation in a restrained manner. But, each time the media saw to it that such restrictions should not be adhered to. Now, the media is projecting the current parliamentary elections as a ‘great occasion’ for Indian democracy. For this occasion, the EC has devised a CC equally applicable to the electorate, groups, institutions and political parties.

Leaving aside what happened during the earlier parliamentary and Assembly polls, but issue of ‘paid news’ has bounced back in the current Lok Sabha elections of 2014 too. Despite reaffirming repeatedly that cheating and befooling the electorate amount to undermining parliamentary democracy, the media has not refrained from playing fraud on the voters. The propaganda materials, deserve to be carried as advertisements, are being presented as news items by the media in favour of those who are paying a hefty price for propagation of the materials. The common voter has an unflinching belief in the authenticity of the news appearing in the print or aired on the electronic outlets. But, the media rarely lose the opportunity for selling ‘that belief’ in the market. This practice, no doubt, is an attempt to hit hard the process of conducting ‘free and fair’ polls.

Four instances of this unfair practice, mani-fested during the current polls in nine rounds, are being presented in the above context. They pertain not only to the violation of the CC and People’s Representation Act by the media but are grave enough to be described as the ‘media offensive’ on parliamentary democracy.

On April 7, 2014, polling for six Lok Sabha seats in Assam and Tripura was underway when TV channels directly telecast live the BJP function for releasing its manifesto. Besides the live telecast, the main promises, made in the document, were shown during the breaking-news intervals. Giving details of the salient points, BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi also elaborated on the promises made to the North-Eastern people.

On April 10, elections were held for seven Lok Sabha seats in Delhi. Priyaranjan, who reports for the Hindi daily, Jansatta, wrote in his paper about what happened on that day. Near the polling booths, the BJP workers were seen sitting on chairs behind the table posing as if they were there to help the voters. But they were seen with newspapers with their eyes glued to the paper posing as if they were reading more intensely the news than the other fellow sitting beside and doing the act. This was not just a display of innocence. It was a sophisticated tactics of violating the CC as no one can exhibit the election symbol of any candidate or party near the polling booths. Note: on that Thursday every newspaper of the Capital (Delhi) carried a full-page advertisement on the front page displaying pictures of Narendra Modi and the Kamal (Lotus) symbol prominently. The EC prohibits carrying of any banner, even a cap, with the party symbol inscribed on it near the polling booths. How come such tactical display of the BJP symbol went on unhindered? Some BJP workers were seen reading even those English newspapers for a longer span in the jhuggi-jhopri (slum) and other basti areas. On April 10, in all 92 Lok Sabha seats went to the polls.

Two days before April 16, the date of polling for 122 Lok Sabha seats, the maximum number to go to polls during the sixth round, NDTV telecast the ‘opinion poll’ on April 14. The very next day, The Times of India and other newspapers carried headlines that it was for the first time when the ‘opinion poll’ has given a majority to the BJP-led NDA poised to win 275 out of 543 seats. And it gave 226 seats to the BJP alone. This was a stairs theory of communication from top to bottom following the party to media, technologically advanced media to traditional media. The EC underlined that the NDTV opinion poll of April 14 included assessment of about 111 Lok Sabha seats which had already gone to polls. Any assessment about these 111 seats amounts to the conducting of ‘exit polls’ which has already been prohibited (when the poll process is on) and is an offence under section of 126 of the People’s Representation Act.

On April 24, as many as 117 seats went to the polls when Modi filed his nomination for the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat. On that day, Modi, the BJP’s nominee for the Prime Minister’s Office, headed a road-show lasting several hours in Varanasi. And TV channels covered meticulou-sly the filing of nomination papers by Modi and his road-show for the entire day. Perhaps no candidate the world over could have earned such a spotlight on the day of filing nomination papers for a contest.

Could one presume that such coverage was a mere coincidence? Political parties and their candidates bear the main responsibility for implementation of the CC and PR Act since they hold public meetings, processions and propa-ganda campaigns and adopt different methods to woo the voters in their favour. Even though the CC and election-related laws are not elaborated in a direct manner to the electorate, the election process seeks to affirm that voters should not be influenced or deterred from exercising their ‘free and fair’ franchise.

Democracy is a political system which is based on the ideas and perceptions and responsibility of allowing every voter to make his/her own perceptions about the party and candidate and the onus for upholding such on order falls on those who are actively partici-pating in the electoral process. It should not happen that one institute or a political outfit is working to honour the ideals of democracy and another attempting to find loopholes in order to violate the laid-down norms in its own interest. The media seems to have developed a tendency not to take the democratic system in its entirety—and it is adept only in using the facilities provided by the system for its own interest.

When on April 7, 2014, the BJP released its manifesto which was telecast live on TV channels even to faraway areas of Assam and Tripura, then the party claimed to have been addressing voters of the Capital having Red Fort as the backdrop and thus it escaped from the purview of the CC and PRA. It means, the BJP made the media a party in its stratagem of circumventing the electoral laws and at the same time, enticing the voters going to exercise their votes in Assam and Tripura. Who should be held responsible for such violation? The media outlets, on other hand, are claiming that it is not technically possible for them to restrict the live telecast from the areas where polling was underway. Is it not the responsibility of the TV channels to devise some ways and means so as not to breach the CC and PRA? Even if the channels take shelter behind some techni-calities, one is compelled to think whether the media outlets had gone for such telecast if a political outfit other than the BJP would have been releasing its manifesto?

Taking the incident of April 10 again, the BJP workers’ tactics of using the newspapers should not be dismissed as merely the party’s stratagem. The media outlets are party to that objectionable tactics since most of the newspapers, which were on display there, are brought out by the establishments to which the same TV channels belong. Hence, the channels turned their face to the other side for serving the interests of their own establishments whose newspapers carried the full page ads of the BJP after realising millions of rupees.

The channels again resorted to violation of the RP Act on April 14 as they telecast the “exit polls” even as the PRA prohibits, through section 126 B, such telecast till the entire election process is over. The TV channels conducted that poll-survey from a non-descript company, Hansa, and included it in the opinion poll assessment of results from 111 seats that had already gone to polls. In the process the channel explicitly ignored that telecast of ‘exit poll’ has been banned by the EC. And, the newspapers carrying headlines favourable to the BJP took refuge behind the pretext that they were basing their stories on an opinion-poll already telecast by the channels the other day.

The same trend was witnessed on April 24. The TV channels elaborately covered the filing of nomination papers by Modi in Varanasi ignoring the fact that he, being the BJP’s nominee for the PM’s office, would be seeking the support of those candidates who were contesting from 117 seats where polls were underway at the same time.

Some seats are yet to go polls and who can say firmly that the media will not become party to the political outfit’s game of outsmarting the Election Commission. Is it a mere coincidence that the media was seen as becoming a party to the BJP’s stratagem of dodging the election codes or was it part of a deep understanding between the party and media outlets? But it should be recalled that the BJP was the only political party which did not agree to the EC’s suggestion for a ban on opinion polls at par with exit polls before initiating the election process. All other political parties seem to be adhering to the EC’s restriction that there would be no display of election symbols 48 hours before the actual polling commences.

This election will be remembered for three reasons: (a) it is the first election when the corporate media played the most active role; (b) it is the costliest of polls in the world; (c) the election laws have been violated with impunity. And, perhaps, it is the first democracy based on the ideals of ‘for the people, by the people, of the people’ where public opinion was manufactured and the voters’ perception was moulded so meticulously by the media.

We seem to be proceeding towards an era wherein the Election Commission’s guidelines, norms and laws could be circumvented with impunity.

Anil Chamadia is the editor of a monthly research journal Mass Media and the Chairman of Media Studies Group.