Media in Times of Elections

When one talks about election and media these days, the first thing that comes to the mind is paid news. The Election Commission, while announcing the dates for the poll jamboree a month ago, specifically talked about the menace and created district and state level media certification and monitoring committees to deal with it. In late March in the presence of Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath and Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi, their colleague HS Brahma even described Mumbai as the “known capital of paid news”. He backtracked later and extended an apology for his remarks. It is not Brahma alone but AAP’s supreme leader Arvind Kejriwal also points finger at media. He accuses that a paid media is working for BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi while Kejriwal’s critics had found fault with media for supporting him. Leaders and voters find bias in media during election. So, it would not be wrong to say that media has not started on a strong wicket this election season.

However, the Election Commissions in earlier times did not have such harsh words for media. The reports on general election in 1951-52 show that media, then predominantly print, found positive mention from the Election Commission.

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Sukumar Sen, the first Chief Election Commissioner of India, wrote in the Report on the First General Election: As the tempo of electioneering heightened, a large number of new newspapers sprang into existence mainly to meet this temporary demand. Although most of these papers came out with the object of furthering the election propaganda of one party or the other, they nevertheless served the purpose of heightening the interest of the voter in the elections and keeping him posted with the latest election news.

Like now, election season is a harvest for media. May be, paid media was not the norm then but many newspapers appeared and disappeared. Leaders knew the importance of mass media. Sen reported that as many as 397 newspapers were started during the period of the elections, and “most of these ceased to exist” after the elections were over.

Media was innovative then too. They found ways to inform people about the first election. In the words of Sen: A few papers introduced a new feature which contained answers to queries from readers relating to subjects like the procedure for registration of voters, disqualifications for membership, election publicity, election expenses, postal voting, government servants and elections, forfeiture of deposits etc.

“These efforts by the Press proved very useful in educating the voters, and probably many of the candidates as well,” Sen wrote.

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If the first election introduced the Q/A format, the second general election introduced a new feature ‘Election Tit-bits’. Sen, who was the Chief Election Commissioner for the 1957 elections too, reported: As the election tempo gathered momentum, the Press highlighted every outstanding event as it came and by the time poll commenced, interest in the elections had become all-absorbing. Many newspapers published special articles explaining the voting procedure in detail for the benefit of the electorate. Some of them introduced a new feature containing “Election Tit-bits”.

Like the election tit-bits of 1957, in 2014, Deccan Herald has ‘Poll Bytes’, Times of India ‘Poll Notes’, Hindustan Times ‘Poll Pourri’, The Hindu ‘Snippets’ and Business Line ‘Poll Diary’ among others.

He also said an election “quiz” programme was undertaken by the Delhi Radio “Quiz” station of the All India Radio in which officers of the Election Programme. Commission answered on two occasions, 26 queries made by the public on matters relating to elections. The AIR also broadcast additional talks in special audience programmes, particularly in the “Women’s programme”.

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“Special election features were also included in the rural broadcasts, industrial broadcasts and broadcasts for women. Features, documentaries and dramatised presentation of matters connected with the elections were also broadcast with a view to emphasise points like the duty of every citizen to vote, secrecy of the ballot and such other matters,” Sen wrote in his report.

Manipulation of media is not a new phenomenon. Way back in the early 1970s, the Chief Election Commissioner S P Sen-Varma flagged concern over the issue in the Report on the Fifth General Elections in India 1971-72. He noted in the report that it “must not be forgotten that the electoral process today has become in the main a contest in manipulation of voters by campaign and propaganda” and in that process by the successful use and utilisation of various mass media, such as broadcasting, newspapers etc.

Though the Election Commission has voiced concern about paid news in 2014, it has not outrightly kept media out. The Commission believes that it is an “important ally” in election management and wants it to play a “positive and proactive role” in the delivery of a free, fair, transparent, peaceful and participative election.

(PS: Article appeared as an election blog in Deccan Herald on April 4, 2014)

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