Role of media in elections

Role of media in elections
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We, the citizens, are deeply concerned about the blatant misuse of print and electronic media by parties and candidates contesting the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 and about the media allowing itself to be abused. This constitutes a gross breach of trust with the reader/viewer who expects unbiased and fair news coverage during elections. Moreover, the media, blatantly violating the Press Council of India’s Guidelines of Election Reporting -1996, stands discredited so far as its role as fourth pillar of the democracy is concerned.

The distinction between news, views and political campaigning (read advertising) is no longer clear. The use of 'advt' or 'marketing media initiative' tag in small font-size printed is not sufficient to inform the reader whether the content is news, views or paid advertising by an election candidate. Some newspapers don’t even care to put this small print.

Broadly speaking, the influence of marketing heads is growing over the influence of editors within media houses in decision-making related to the content. The person who collects advertisements for media and acts as a correspondent, is often the same in smaller districts and sub-district places. These people enjoy due media accreditation and often promote those who issue advertisements (and block those who don't).

The amount which is spent on paid advertising, advertorials and other manners like 'marketing media initiative' and likes, to solicit earned and paid media coverage of a candidate during elections, often crosses the spending cap of Rs 25 lakhs. Hence, media is colluding with parties and candidates in violating the model code of conduct during elections. Moreover, the transactions for advertisements in the garb of news items are not even shown in the records. Newspapers are not required to file financial statements to their regulatory authorities as a result of which it is difficult to know their exact incomes or the sources on this account. They should be required to do so partywise & candidatewise so that the figures given by the candidates may be cross-checked.

There is a need to enact a law to regulate political parties. The ceiling should be all inclusive covering expenditure by friends & relatives also which is not included at present and is used to flout the ceiling. Also the penalty on violating the spending cap in elections should be more severe and applicable on the current election cycle as well. Presently the action taken on violating the spending cap is applicable to next election cycle only, which is clearly not a deterrent.

The electronic media must also have an equivalent of a Press Council to govern their conduct.

We also support the growing demand for all newspapers to appoint an ombudsman to inquire into complaints against them.

But, fundamentally, we would like to see the media go back to its non-partisan role of being the watchdog of democracy. It should not compromise its independent position for the sake of commercial interests. When people are losing faith in the democratic institutions of the country the media should not accelerate the degeneration. It is expected to play a role in restoring people’s confidence in democracy.

- This is a statement produced by some citizens after reviewing the Press Council of India's Guidelines for election reporting (1996), BBC guidelines for election reporting, the Press Act of India, and other such documents, and newspaper coverage during 15th Lok Sabha elections in India.

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