A demand has come forth, perhaps the first of its kind, from a political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, that the newspaper Saamana, owned by a Shiv Sena-promoted trust, be banned for three days during the final stages of the civic bodies’ elections in Maharashtra. This is, to say the least, a regressive move and the BJP is not entitled to any accolades even if it were in the interests of a level-playing field between the two parties.
Though it is a mouthpiece of Shiv Sena, apart from the issues relating to its party, when it can get as strident as it gets, the publication is a newspaper with a fair lot of good reporting on many issues. Asking a newspaper to be banned by a political party is just not kosher. It could well set off a chain of demands, though other parties do benefit by biases in other publications. It includes favourable coverage by paying for space — paid for news.
It has been reported that the “State BJP spokesperson Shweta Shalini said in a letter to SEC (State Election Commission) that ‘publishing content or undertaking publicity campaign (of parties and candidates) two days before polling date’ is prohibited, so publication of Saamana should be banned on 16, 20 and 21 February. It ignores the fact that on the very polling days, full-page advertisements by all parties in newspapers is not uncommon.
The call for a ban on Saamana has given an opportunity to an extreme right-wing political party which believes in ‘my way or the highway’ principle, to describe it as an Emergency. Uddhav Thackeray, the editor of the paper, and Sena chief, said, “My question is if you blame Indira Gandhi for imposing Emergency, isn't this an Emergency?" He has a point there. The BJP walked into a trap, what with many left-wingers voicing their grief that fear pervades the country since BJP came to power in Delhi.
This publicity just before the polls has to be seen in the context of publicity during the voting. For instance, in any elections where the polling is in stages, often separated by a few days, the campaign may stop 36 hours before the polling — that is campaign by distributions of bills, etc — but the very same day the television may be live telecasting a speech by a party worthy in another part of the region where polling is due later.
This has been an issue which does not seem to have engaged the attention of the Election Commission of India. While opting for multi-phase polling given the vast size of the country and even states — and the requirement of law and order management logistics — has not dealt with this. It actually is in conflict with the rules. Just as live telecast of parliamentary debates where the presiding officer expunges a remark but the country has heard it. Only the printed versions of the media have to follow the rule of not reporting it.
Recall the song and dance when Narendra Modi, after casting his vote during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, was raising his two fingers in a victory sign, wearing a BJP symbol on his kurta. Had he done that a kilometre away, it may have met the requirements of electoral conduct rules, but mass news television has bridged distances and the gesture could have the same impact as it would have outside the polling booth. The new age media has made nonsense of some rules.
It is quite likely, in fact quite certain, that after the traditional campaign ended this time too for the civic bodies and the zilla parishads in Maharashtra, the WhatsApp, Twitter and the Facebook would be promoting the interests of political parties and their candidates right up to the moment the last vote is cast. Be assured that it may not be by partisan citizens but by paid trolls who have become the invisible campaigners in the country.
Saamana is not the only newspaper which is a mouthpiece of a political party. Political parties and politicians own media outlets, ranging from newspapers to websites, news television channels and magazines included. There are newspapers which have a clear stance in favour of a single political party, and their owners or editors, or sometimes the two positions being held by a single person, have been even MPs representing a political party.
In 2009, Livemint had this graphic listing the ownership or association of politicians and political parties and the media in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Chhatisgarh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, New Delhi. In its consultation paper on media ownership, the Telecom Regulatory Authority did not mince its words when it said:
“There is an increasing trend of influence of political parties/politicians in the media sector. Political parties either directly or indirectly through surrogates control newspapers, TV channels and TV distribution systems. Such TV channels and newspapers would, obviously, promote the leaders and propagate the agenda of these political parties. This tendency is more prevalent in regional markets."
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Updated Date: Feb 16, 2017 12:35:40 IST