Now that the election dates have been announced (April 11-May 23, 2019), the government, the political parties, and the media will have to follow the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) laid down by the Election Commission immediately. The present government, constitutionally, will act as a caretaker till the new one is elected.
For the last few weeks we have noted how the governments, both at the centre and the state, spent crore through media advertisements to propagate their ‘good work’. Not any more - since the MCC has now been implemented. The political parties if they so desire can promote themselves only through advertisements under their party banner but not through the government. The media will now be closely watched by research bodies and by the common man as to how ‘biased’ they are in their coverage of the political battle that will go on, out in the fields, in the next two months.
We now know of many published papers by several American universities and researchers on how Barack Obama and later, Donald Trump had used YouTube, Twitter, and other social media platforms as essential ingredients of the election campaigns. Such close monitoring of the media may be missing in India but it is now being seriously discussed and also followed to some extent. The Indian Parliamentary Committee’s recent grilling of the representatives of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram is one such positive step. The parliamentary committee asked them several questions which can, in future, clarify the role of the social media. Are they information aggregators or news selectors? Nowadays, many seem to follow news from the social media itself. How far is news in social media authentic? Can social media carry news without accountability? During the last presidential election in the US, questions were raised and investigated about a possible Russian intervention through the social media. The parliamentary committee in India has rightly raised questions whether foreign powers, through these social media platforms, could meddle in the ensuing Indian election.
Many of the print media houses today have an ombudsman who looks into public grievances. The committee found out that the social media still does not have one. The representatives admitted to the parliamentary committee that there was scope for corrective measures in their system and that they will be in touch with the Election Commission. The incident of the Cambridge Analytica proved that there can be possibilities of tampering with social media content. While none would like to see the freedom of the social media being curbed, it is important to learn how to measure ‘human intervention’ in its content.
The Indian media has already gone through various phases of human intervention and that too, of the wrong kind. The Press Council of India has revealed how political parties have earlier implanted ‘paid news’ especially during election time. It is important that the regulators take pre-emptive steps.
While political parties will now woo the media to get their election campaigns covered, it is also imperative that the media tries to make use of this election to regain its credibility. That can only happen if the media shuns the inducements that the political parties will try to offer in election time and stick to its rule of objectivity. But that would look like wish fulfillment, since the stakes are too high and the political forces have nurtured many of the media houses for far too long. Hopefully, this time there will be many eyes watching and dissecting the media coverage of the Indian general election.