Elections in India have an unusual relationship with the media. For one thing, they share several points of commonality-playing a critical function in a democracy, size and magnitude, concern about coverage, a carnival-like atmosphere and also the complexity of the entire ecology.
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Of course, the media also feeds into the election process and plays a vital supplementary role, while elections are also very critical to the media-both for content and revenue.
There are differences as well. The Election Commission of India is an autonomous authority accountable only to Parliament, while the media in India is owned by various companies without an overarching authority. Media ownership ranges from the government to multinationals to large corporate houses to even individuals. A prominent feature of the Indian media is the dominance of a few channels and publications, besides ownership of units by political parties and candidates contesting elections.
Political ownership and use of the media is not new in our country as even during the freedom struggle, prominent parties had their own publications. However, given the current clutter and the omnipresent role the media plays in framing issues even today, any misuse in the current electoral scenario is a matter of grave concern.
One such issue that has received considerable public attention is “paid news”-the phenomenon of advertising in the garb of news. For the Election Commission, this was not just a question of misinformation or misuse of the media, but also one of proper accounting for expenditure.
The ongoing assembly polls posed a test as to how much this practice could be addressed by the Election Commission as Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Assam are states where political parties and leaders own news media outlets, including television channels.
In Tamil Nadu, for example, there were no complaints against paid news in spite of the bias apparent in the coverage by some news organizations. Bias occurs when one candidate or party receives more news coverage over an extended period of time, especially when it’s favourable.
One reason for the lack of complaints against paid news in Tamil Nadu could be that most of the prominent channels and publications are owned by contesting parties. Opponents weren’t allowed to advertise, even though political ads are major revenue earners.
The Election Commission was well prepared with detailed guidelines on measures to check for paid news during the elections. Special committees were formed at the district level for such scrutiny. Based on this intensive monitoring, the election panel sought explanations from two Tamil language dailies.
There were formal complaints in Assam against a channel owned by a minister, but nothing could be “proved”. In the case of a local cable channel belonging to a political leader, the licence was cancelled well before the polling day.
In Andhra Pradesh, Sakshi TV has been asked to explain why some of its programmes should not be considered paid news. The Sakshi media group is owned by rebel Congressman Jagan Mohan Reddy, who’s contesting bypolls in Kadapa along with his mother.
The district collector had appointed a committee comprising the district public relations officer, the local representative of The Hindu newspaper and an All India Radio news executive to assess the extent of “paid news” in media coverage since the day elections had been notified.
Media saturation and blanket coverage up till notification day is completely outside the Election Commission’s purview. Similarly, even the larger political advertisements and spending just before the notification date won’t be included in the books of accounts that need to be maintained by candidates as per the Election Commission’s code.
Balanced coverage is a casualty when parties and candidates own news media outlets as there is no payment involved, directly or indirectly, for “excess and one-sided coverage” and/or “propagandistic coverage”. As is the case with coverage to a candidate or party even after campaigning comes to an end 48 hours before polling. At the outset, the Election Commission issued a warning to channel chiefs indicating a two-year jail sentence for violating guidelines in this regard. This did make some difference as a few channels in these states gave up plans for special programmes on polling day.
Given the ownership of media by political parties and leaders, the concept of paid news may need to be redefined to better understand the implications. The Election Commission may need to come up with a more systematic and uniform methodology that a committee or independent observers can work on to formulate more objective correctives.
Democracies like ours need to address such challenges to ensure free and fair elections and also enable free and fair media coverage of elections.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.