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‘India’s media is the strength of the EC’

From filling in voter information gaps to catching improprieties,the media has helped keep elections fair and transparent

Written by S. Y. Quraishi |
May 31, 2012 12:49:50 am

From filling in voter information gaps to catching improprieties,the media has helped keep elections fair and transparent

Our knowledge and awareness of the world today is largely determined by what the media decides to inform us. The priorities that the media sets often become the priorities of the public. In our country,the executive,the legislature and the judiciary are strongly complemented by the media. No one could vouch for this more than me,based on the experience of my job.

Elections in a democracy are the foundation on which the edifice of governance is built for the welfare of the people. We have an electoral system that the world looks up to. It is difficult to think of this achievement without an active,vibrant and neutral media. Its role has been incessant: from full page editorials to opinion and exit polls to marathon talk shows. India’s media is the strength of the Election Commission. The commission and the media must continue to work together to build a healthy,transparent,honest and sustainable edifice of democracy.

First,the ordinary voter comes to know about the basics — like the what,when,where and how of elections — generally through the media. It fills the gap between what voters should know and what they actually know. News media highlights the educational,financial and criminal antecedents of the candidates disseminated by the commission,which has contributed to honesty and transparency in the election system.

Second,in discharge of the commission’s duties to ensure free,fair,peaceful and transparent polls,media is its most potent and formidable ally. We critically benefit from the media’s role as a watchdog,and it is often referred to as the commission’s eyes and ears. It not only provides the commission the quickest alerts on a wrongful act by a candidate or political party,but also becomes the best source of evidence. The commission has directed that media reports and media exposés on electoral malpractices and violations be treated as formal complaints.

We at the commission also look forward to a much larger and committed partnership from the media in the national cause of voters’ education and citizen’s participation in elections. This could be one of your worthy pursuits,as you chase hard news related to conduct of elections. Following a Systematic Voters Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) programme,of which the word “systematic” is the Indian Express editor’s contribution,we have achieved consistently higher turnouts in the last 11 state elections,with historic records achieved in six of them. Women turned out in larger numbers than men in all five recent elections. I am happy that we have been able to invite the proactive attention of the media on this subject,for which we are about to give a national media award.

Media is the force that can bring about change towards any direction. It can arouse right thinking and can also let loose scary processes. The cancerous growth of unprofessional,unaccountable news carries the risk of inviting regulation,which in turn will be a slow poison for the freedom of the press. Hence,media accountability needs to be applied without discrimination,irrespective of the size or reputation of the media house.

Serious thought needs to be given to the “paid news” that is threatening to erode the value and pride of the press and is starting to shake the foundations of democracy. For us at the EC,paid news seeks to circumvent election expenditure laws and causes undue influence on voters. The commission has acted decisively and appointed district and state level committees to locate political advertisements in the garb of news coverage. As many as 891 notices have been issued in the last 11 state elections. But the commission feels that a voluntary code is a more effective answer. I wish that the alliance between the EC and the media that fortifies democracy does not get weakened or adversely affected by the menace of paid news.

As I look at brilliant youngsters like you,I am reminded that the country is in need of leaders in all spheres. We at the EC could bring about a participation revolution or launch a global resource centre on electoral democracy,or take up a bold fight against paid news,but not by dint of a grand vision alone. We needed leaders ready with talent,passion and a sense of enterprise. We appointed an exceptional civil servant,Akshay Rout,from within the government as our director general. The rest is before you. Shekhar (Gupta),your editor,leads us through the use of his pen. Wielding the pen or holding the mike,you can sway minds and hearts,unlike others. The Express tradition of journalism of courage needs to be nurtured through an institute like this,so that the future is secure. You have been moulded here by 80 years of excellence so that,as you drive into dazzling careers,the country should also see the emergence of leaders from among you.

I pray for this and wish the new postgraduates all the best.

From an address at the annual convocation of the Express Institute of Media Studies on May 28. The writer is chief election commissioner of India

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