Media plays an indispensable role in a democracy. In India, the media is regarded as the fourth organ of the state, the others being, executive, legislature and judiciary. In a democracy, the government is for, by and of the people, it becomes a necessity to have a link between the government and the people of the country. Thus, the media acts as a direct link between the legislature and people. It represents the will of the people.
It is the responsibility of the Election Commission of India (EC) to keep a check on the candidate’s and party’s promotions and their means and limit of promotion and to ensure the same, the EC must be conferred with the essential powers to deal with the upcoming issues like propaganda spreading, fake news, paid news, etc. for which the use of digital media and social media is being made. The EC currently is working under the powers conferred under Article 3242 of the Indian Constitution.
Discussion of the media’s functions within electoral contexts, often focuses on their “watchdog” role: by unfettered scrutiny and discussion of the successes and failures of candidates, governments, and electoral management bodies, the media can inform the public of how effectively they have performed and help to hold them to account.1
In the era of advanced technology, media has all the more become a powerful tool in shaping public opinion and setting agendas. A media that is responsible and appropriately used will help strengthen the democratic process and contribute to a more credible and inclusive election.
The interconnection of media and elections
Media is regarded as the fourth pillar in a democracy. It plays an integral role in conveying and being a recipient of information. It plays an important role at every stage of an election.
Pre electoral Period
Before the elections, the media disseminates the information regarding the prospective candidates, the positions of parties, previous year records and assessments. Because of the media, the political parties are able to advertise and put forth their manifesto for the forthcoming elections.
At this stage the media assesses and plans strategies in accordance with the electoral calendar and operations. Since the main task of the media is dissemination of information, it informs people of their rights and duties in an election. It educates the voters, provides the details of various candidates, party financing, scrutinises the manifestos provided by the parties, etc. In the pre electoral period, the role played by media is as follows:
1. by reporting on the development of an election campaign;
2. by providing a platform for the political parties and candidates to communicate their message to the electorate;
3. by providing a platform for the public to communicate their concerns, opinions, and needs, to the parties/candidates, the EMB, the government, and to other voters, and to interact on these issues;
4. by allowing the parties and candidates to debate with each other;
5. by scrutinizing the electoral process, itself, including electoral management, in order to evaluate the fairness of the process, its efficiency, and its probity;
6. by providing information that, as far as possible, avoids inflammatory language, helping to prevent election-related violence.
The media has a very influential role in the conduct of elections and its outcome. In addition to providing information to the voters needed for them to make an informed choice and providing a platform for candidates to reach the public, the media can set the agenda for the process through the topics it covers, questions it asks and tone of its coverage. In addition, many electoral campaigns are often won or lost in the media through the way the candidate or issue is portrayed and the volume of increasingly expensive political advertisements.
Media constantly engages and informs the people about the voting day and timings and encourages them to vote in large numbers. It carries out an analysis of the parties and its list of candidates, and keeps a check on counting of votes. It informs the public of any dispute or immoral comments, if any, passed by any of the politicians, which has been disregarded by the court.
Post electoral period
Media carries out exit polls which help people project the results and keeps a track on counting of votes on the result day. It keeps people informed about every minute report relating to the elections. Further, when the election period gets over, it keeps a track on the activities as promised by the candidates. Thus, making the government accountable to the public for its actions and promises made.
Role of media in elections
In the last few years there has been a tremendous growth of media in the country both-print and electronic, but it has been rather spectacular in the latter. Consequent upon large scale proliferation of the electronic media, its coverage of the electoral process has assumed greater significance.
Each country has its peculiar mix requiring attention. In India, the oral tradition is strong and among a relatively large unlettered population, the power of moving images speaking directly to the viewer cannot be matched by the print media.3 The numerous ways in which media ensure democratic electoral processes generally fall into one of the following categories:
Media as watchdog
In the present scenario, the media has evolved and spread over in every area. It has become an essential to safeguard the transparency in a democratic set up. This is called the media acting as a ‘watchdog’. Transparency is required on many levels including for access to information; accountability and legitimacy of individuals, institutions and processes themselves; and for rightful participation and public debate.
In this role, the media function to protect the public from incompetent or corrupt political officials by exposing illegal or unethical practices to the public. As a watchdog, the media act as the public’s protector or guardian. The public is then able to make informed decisions regarding the ouster of officials or changing of inept practices.4
Another aspect of transparency is to provide necessary information which may affect the choice of people to elect a candidate. Not only this, the media provides for a detailed account of educational qualification, assets held and an account of the legal and operational proceedings, the officials and institutions, which enables the public to make an informed decision.
Media acts as a mechanism for the prevention and investigation of allegations of violations or malpractice. This watchdog role extends from accountability of officials and their actions while ‘in office’ to entire processes. For example, media presence at voting and counting centres is critical to preventing electoral fraud, given that full measures protecting freedom of speech are guaranteed, and that media are free to act independently and with impartiality.
Media also provides a platform for debates and discussions, thus ensuring accountability of government or elected members to the people. It shapes public opinion and provides a ‘representation’ to the individuals, thus, making the process more transparent.
Furthermore, transparency of individual processes (such as voting, counting, registering, candidate nomination, campaigning and so forth) further protects and enables public participation in these processes.
Media as a campaign platform
The judiciary in India has time and again held that it is the duty of the candidates to provide information regarding their assets and liabilities, educational qualifications, manifesto, agendas, etc. Besides meeting directly with members of the electorate, candidates and parties accomplish this task through campaigns via media. Candidates and parties use the mass media for campaigning through sponsored direct access spots, paid political advertising, televised debates, use of social media, and other mechanisms.
Media as open forum for debate and discussion/public voice
The role of the media in providing this platform for debate and discussion is therefore vital. Media provide a mechanism for regular citizens to be heard and to therefore influence political agendas and campaign platforms, and sometimes garnering support and influencing fellow voters. Forms can include:
- Members of the public, lobby groups, experts with different perspectives, and candidates being interviewed by the media for their views on certain policies;
- Talkback radio and television in which the public air their opinions;
- Contestants’ websites, social media networks, and so on, where the public can interact with them directly;
- News reports on press conferences, protests and other events held by interest groups;
- Media surveys of public opinion;
- Citizen journalism;
- Debates on blogs, Twitter, and social media sites;
- Letters to the editor.5
Media as public educator
Media ensures voters are provided information necessary to fully evaluate the conduct of officials. It ensures that the public is aware of the political agenda of all participating parties and candidates equally. BY making available information, voters became aware and thereby they educate other voters, politicians, and officials to exercise their Universal Adult Franchise.
Media also educates through the transmission of voter information. This might be through direct negotiation with EMBs and NGOs for broadcast of educational material (see Encyclopaedia topic area: Voter Education for more information). It also happens indirectly. For example, when the media report on an electoral event, details such as the location of voting sites, the necessity of voter registration, how the count will be conducted, and so forth, may be provided to the audience. This is one reason why it is very important that an EMB communicates frequently with all media, providing them with the necessary facts and figures to ensure accurate reporting.5
Media, Elections and Laws in India
The mass media are essential to the conduct of democratic elections. A free and fair election is not only about casting a vote in proper conditions, but also about having adequate information about parties, policies, candidates and the election process itself so that voters can make an informed choice. A democratic election with no media freedom would be a contradiction in terms. Therefore, the following are the rights exercised and duties imposed on media with respect to elections:
- Freedom of Speech and Expression
Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, articulates freedom of speech and expression. This freedom of speech and expression includes freedom of press or media. In the case of Romesh Thappar v State of Madras, Patanjali Sastri CJ observed “Freedom of speech and of the press lay down the foundation of all democratic organisations, for without free political discussion no public education, so essential for the proper functioning of the process of popular Government, is possible.”
The freedom of press under Article 19 enables the press to carry out exit polls, publish reports, etc. but this freedom is restricted by Article 19 (2) of the Constitution of India and is therefore not absolute.
- Freedom to carry out any trade, profession, business
Freedom to carry out trade, profession and business is enshrined under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution which enables media houses to practice such profession.
- Article 324: Election Commission of India and its functions
Article 324 envisages the provision of the Election Commission of India. Article 324 empowers the Election Commission of India to issue rules and guidelines for conducting elections of Parliament, President, Vice President and State Legislative Assemblies in the country. The Election Commission of India releases code of conduct to conduct free and fair elections in the country.
- Media Certification and Monitoring Committees (MCMC)
All the provisions of model code of conduct shall also apply to the content being posted on the social media by candidates and political parties, For scrutiny, the district and state-level Media Certification and Monitoring Committees (MCMC), which vet all electronic and radio advertisements during the model code period, will now also have a social media expert on board.
- Representation of the People Act, 1951
Under S.126 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951; display of any election matter by means, inter alia, of television or similar apparatus, during the period of 48 hours before the hour fixed for conclusion of poll in a constituency is prohibited. But its application on social media platforms is not governed by any specific law and in that regard; a PIL was filed in Bombay High Court asking for a similar blackout or silence period for social media platforms. The EC’s defence stood the self-regulations to which the Hon’ble HC expressed its views and questioned why is EC hesitating to issue any such orders. Contrary to that, the Supreme Court had expressed its happiness that the EC has finally woken up to its powers. The Statement came looking at the EC’s actions being taken against the senior leaders like Yogi Adityanath, Mayawati for making communal speeches but the powers of the EC with respect to regulation of media content over various social media and other platforms is still a big question mark.
- Cable Television Network (Regulation) Rules, 1994
The Cable Television Network (Regulation) Rules, 1994, prohibit advertisements of political nature. This issue was raised before the Andhra Pradesh High Court, which suspended the operation of Rule 7(3) of the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Rules, 1994, relating to prohibition of advertisements of political nature. The matter went to the Supreme Court and the Apex Court, but its order dated 13.4.2004, modified the High Court’s order and directed the Commission to monitor the advertisements on television and cable networks during the recent general elections and for future election, the issue needs to be settled. The Commission proposed that the Government may consider amending the relevant provisions of the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Rule, 1994 to provide for suitable advertisement code and monitoring mechanism.6
2. Superintendence, direction and control of elections to be vested in an Election Commission
Tanvi hails from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies and spends most of her time reading and researching. Her Interest areas are Property Law, Human Rights Law and Constitutional Law. For any clarifications, feedback, and advice, you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org