Bans, regulation, and political paranoia

BY Hoot editorial| IN Law and Policy | 11/11/2013
What does the voter need more: opinion polls, or more ground reporting on what a party's performance is? One would imagine the latter.
A HOOT editorial on the regulatory moves to watch out for. Pix: Minister Tewari

There are at this point a number of regulatory irons in the fire. The Election Commission is experimenting with  a ban on opinion polls. Starting from today until December 4 when Delhi votes,  It has banned the publication and dissemination of exit polls of any kind in the five poll bound states. In doing so it has endeared itself to the Congress Party which is irked by the trends recent polls have indicated. And also  in one fell swoop  deprived TV news channels and newspapers which  often commission these in tandem, of a whole series of newsy talking points over the next three weeks.  

This is hardly  the first time opinion polls and exit poll bans have been considered, there have been exit  poll  restrictions earlier.    They are thought to influence the undecided voter though there is no evidence one way or another. Who loses most from an opinion poll being disallowed?  Mainly the media house that commissions them and books  advertising  on the shows on which they will be aired. What does the voter need more:  opinion polls, or  more ground reporting on what a party’s performance is? One  would imagine the latter. Particularly in an election season like this one where personality hyping is replacing systematic coverage of performance and poll promises.  What helps the voter more than an opinion poll (which fills a lot of air time) is a comparative data picture of where each of the contesting parties stands on a particular issue. How many of these exercises have we  seen in newspapers and on TV channels? 

The EC also wants to regulate social media in the run up to the coming elections and has laid down guidelines accordingly. These require political parties to account for payments made to internet companies and social media websites for posting advertisements, expenditure on making and development of creative content, and operational expenditure on salaries and wages paid to staff hired for maintaining social media accounts of parties and candidates. The model code of conduct  is expected to  apply to content being posted on the Internet, including social media websites, by the candidates and political parties.

Just last weekend Aakar Patel in Mint Lounge described how Narendra Modi is winning the social media war, a one-sided one which Rahul Gandhi for instance has not even tried to join. The relevant bit in this column  describes the army of 2000 people the Modi camp is deploying to wage a social media war for him. When does the EC propose to act on something like this?  And in light of this and the fact that newspapers have taken to publishing comparative graphs of how the leading poll personalities are faring on social media in terms of positive and negative mentions, the idea of regulating social media use seems to make sense. If those 2000 cyber warriors are paid volunteers they need to count in Mr Modi’s campaign spend. And be recognised as paid opinion.

The third regulatory move has been the draft drawn up by the government of a revised bill which seeks to amend the Press and Registration of Books Act of 1867 which governs registration  of newspapers, among other things.  It is notable for its effort to tackle paid news, which it does by offering a very cursory definition of it, and then a sweeping process of suspension and revocation of registration if a publication is found guilt  by a prescribed body, of carrying paid news.

The definition offered is this: “Paid news means publishing any news  or analysis in the publication for a price in cash or kind as consideration.” (chapter 1, 2 (n)  That is nowhere near as detailed and precise as it needs to be.

The penalty in case an appropriate authority finds the publication guilty of carrying paid news is that its publication may be suspended, followed by a cancellation of its registration as a licensed publication.  Will this be for a one time offence?  How many repeat offences will merit such action?  Nobody denies the need to end the practice of paid news, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Punitive fines and mandatory public apologies have more merit.

New laws get their teeth or their safeguards from the rules.  The media fraternity can either  tackle  this potentially sweeping law by mounting noisy protests as it usually does, or by being extremely  watchful  when the rules are being drafted, if indeed it fails to stop the amendment bill from being passed.   

The fourth  recent regulatory  assertion by the government which has caused  indignation is the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s  (I and B) belated response ( in October)  to the  alleged disrespect shown by news channels in telecasting a comparison of the Independence Day speeches of the prime minister and Narendra Modi. The ministry has ventured to suggest that it is unpatriotic and  a violation of the  cable act of 1995.

Is showing an opposition party political leader unpatriotic?  Why?  And since when does editorial news judgement become a violation of the law?  If  I and B  Manish Tewari’s party is paranoid about the coming elections,  kneejerk reactions don’t help its image or cause.

Of all of the above, the first two can be lived with as they pertain to an  election period. Indeed the second might even be necessary.  The third requires urgent redrafting.   And the fourth needs a feisty repudiation. 

Meanwhile TDSAT, the appellate tribunal of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, has begun hearing the news broadcasters' appeal on the 12 minutes-per-hour restriction on advertising imposed by TRAI. One hopes the outcome will reflect the recognition that news consumers too have some rights. 

Related link: Way forward for the ad cap stand-off

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The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

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