THE Election Commission (EC) on Monday ordered the District Election Officers (DEOs) of 15 districts in Uttar Pradesh to lodge separate criminal cases against the editors of Dainik Jagran newspaper for running an exit poll on the first phase of polling held in the state last week.
The EC asked for 15 separate FIRs to be lodged against Resource Development International (I) Pvt. Ltd, the agency that conducted the poll, and the editorial head of the Hindi daily under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) read with Section 126A and 126B of Representation of People (RP) Act, 1951. Offences under Section 188 of IPC are cognisable, which means the police have the authority to make an arrest without either a warrant or the permission of a court.
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Section 126A(1) of RP Act prohibits the conduct and publicising of an exit poll through print or electronic media during the period specified by the poll watchdog. An offence under this section is punishable by imprisonment of up to two years or with fine or both. For the ongoing assembly elections in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Goa and Manipur, the EC, through a notification on January 27, banned exit polls from February 4 to March 8, which is the last day of voting.
However, on February 11, around 7.30 pm, Dainik Jagran released the results of an exit poll on its website after polling in 73 seats was complete. The exit poll agency, which claimed to have interviewed 5,700 voters across 38 Assembly seats covered under the first phase of elections, projected BJP as the front-runner followed by BSP and the SP-Congress alliance. The results were taken down from the website on Monday morning after the alleged violation was reported by a section of the media.
Taking cognisance of the violation the EC said in a press statement on Monday, “The Commission has decided to take stringent action against the perpetrators of this serious violation of the provisions of Section 126A of RP Act, 1951 to uphold the law to ensure the smooth conduct of free and fair elections.”
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Speaking to The Indian Express before the EC order, Jagran Group CEO and editor of the Hindi daily Sanjay Gupta said, “The exit poll didn’t appear in the newspaper. It was carried by the advertising department on our website. We have removed it now.” Gupta was unavailable for comment after the EC ordered DEOs to lodge FIRs against the editorial head of the newspaper.
This is not the first time the EC has acted against a media house for running an exit poll. In February 2007, during elections in Punjab, the poll watchdog asked DEOs of 20 districts to file separate criminal cases against NDTV director Prannoy Roy on charges of the channel allegedly carrying exit-poll like projections during voting hours. However, unlike this time, the poll panel had not directed the DEOs to file criminal cases under Section 188 of IPC, which is a cognisable offence.
The matter of exit and opinion polls was first brought to EC’s notice in 1997 when most political parties opposed them on the ground that they influence voters. Back then, newspapers and news channels were free to broadcast such polls anytime, even during voting hours.
In 1998, the Commission issued an order before the Lok Sabha election banning both exit and opinion polls, which evoked strong protests from the media, which felt it curbed their freedom to speech and expression. Although the matter went to Supreme Court, it didn’t intervene then and the media houses agreed to follow the guidelines.
However, when the EC tried to invoke these guidelines again ahead of Lok Sabha polls in 1999, certain sections of the media refused to follow it, forcing the EC to move court. The matter was referred to the Constitution Bench of the apex court which expressed concern over the Constitutional validity of such guidelines. The Bench observed the EC cannot enforce such guidelines in the absence of statutory sanction which led the Commission to withdraw it.
Later, in 2004, the EC approached the Law Ministry for an amendment to the RP Act to ban on both exit and opinion polls during a period specified by the Commission. However, the recommendation was only accepted in part and restrictions were imposed only on exit polls in February 2010.
N Ram, chairman of Kasturi and Sons Ltd and former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu who was among the editors who challenged EC’s ban in court in 1999, said that he didn’t approve of the move to initiate criminal proceedings against those conducting exit polls.
“In a very protracted election I think there is no need for newspapers to do exit polls in between. But this (restraint) should be self imposed. You can’t use criminal laws. It’s not a criminal act. Even in the US, until California votes they do not release the results of exit polls. The same restraint can be exercised here in a protracted election. But I would be opposed to using the criminal law against anyone who does it. I would urge media to exercise restraint. There is no need for a ban,” Ram told The Indian Express.