The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) should be amended to ensure that political parties release their manifesto at least 72 hours before voting ends in the first phase of polls, a committee set up by the Election Commission has recommended.
The panel has also suggested that the provision of “election silence” be extended to cover print and social media, internet, cable channels and online version of print media. And that social media agencies be asked to label political advertisements to separate them from other content, and maintain an account of expenditure incurred by political parties and candidates for advertising on their platforms.
These recommendations were made by the 14-member committee set up by the EC last year to revisit the MCC, Section 126 of the Representation of the People (RP) Act and other related provisions in the wake of rapid expansion in the media, The Indian Express has learnt.
The report was submitted to Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora and Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa Thursday. The panel is headed by Deputy Election Commissioner Umesh Sinha and has nine officers from the Commission and one nominated member each from the I&B Ministry, Law Ministry, IT Ministry, National Broadcasters Association and Press Council of India.
Currently, there is no stipulation on the timing of manifesto launch for political parties. In 2014, BJP had released its Lok Sabha manifesto on the day of voting in the first phase. Although the Congress had complained to the EC stating this would influence voters, the Commission was unable to act since the MCC is silent on the timing of manifesto release.
Section 126 of the RP Act, meanwhile, embodies “election silence”, which prohibits any form of poll campaign in the last 48 hours leading up to voting. This section also restrains display of any election matter “by means of cinematograph, television or other similar apparatus”.
In a multi-phase election, the silence period is usually in effect in some seats even as poll campaigning is on in others. In such cases, the committee has recommended political parties and candidates should not make any reference, direct or indirect, seeking support for seats covered under the silence period. The report also states that during such time, political party leaders should refrain from addressing media through press conferences or give interviews on election-related issues.
Some of the recommendations, if and when accepted by EC, will require an amendment to the RP Act, for which the Commission will have to write to the Law Ministry. The 14-member panel was set up on January 8, 2018, after the EC withdrew its notice issued to Congress president Rahul Gandhi for giving interviews to TV newschannels on December 13, 2017, a day before the second phase of the Gujarat Assembly elections.
The decision to issue Rahul a notice had evoked a strong reaction from the Congress, which questioned the move on the ground that it did not initiate action against news channels for airing BJP president Amit Shah’s interview and Union Minister Piyush Goyal’s press conference on the same day.
The EC eventually withdrew its notice and announced: “The Commission is of the considered view that due to multifold expansion of digital and electronic media, the extant Model Code of Conduct, Section 126 of the RP Act, 1951, and other related provisions require revisiting to cater to the requirement and challenges of the present and emerging situations.”
Among the other key recommendations of the panel are:
* Social media platforms should work with the EC to evolve a mechanism by which the latter can flag content violating electoral law and social media sites can take it down as soon as possible.
* EC should issue directions to private cable TV channels to follow NBSA guidelines for election broadcasts during the poll period.
“The recommendations made by the Committee, when implemented (after adoption by the ECI with necessary modification or additions), will help in minimizing the possible interference of activities which aim at indirectly influencing voters during the valuable silence period of 48 hours provided to them,” stated a press statement issued by the EC Thursday.
The panel’s report, which was drafted after consultation with major stakeholders including political parties, News Broadcasters Association, the Internet and Mobile Association of India and representatives of Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter, and Google, will be considered by the EC next week.
When contacted, Umesh Sinha said: “We have submitted the report to the Commission in a sealed cover and it will not be proper for me to say anything.”