The strictures by the Election Commission of India, ECI, to the state media on how the latter should go about conducting their businesses of election coverage is welcome, although as pointed out by many media persons during a recent interaction, there are many grey areas to be clarified. While it is known that the media often gets carried along by those contesting the election from the ruling party in the presumption they were covering government news, the definition of fair election coverage would need more than a simple appeal for balanced election reporting. On the face of it, there can be no two ways whatsoever that once the election has been announced and the election code of conduct put in place, the media must be extra cautious to decide which news should be considered neutral government news and which election propaganda by the party in power. But to simply say no more news of the government in view of the forthcoming election would be wrong, for indeed, there can never be a situation where the government has ceased to exist, and covering government news is in the interest of the public. The danger also is, if the media is made to go silent for whatever the reason, a lot of official mischief can happen, considering one of the major roles of the media anywhere being as a watchdog to ensure public interest is not compromised by anybody, in particular by the government that be.
If total neutrality of media coverage of government activities in election time were to be ensured, the electoral system ought to have made it mandatory for popular government to be dissolved a month ahead of elections and elections held under the caretaker charge of Presidents Rule. This would have not only ensure no undue advantage is taken by those in the ruling party in the use of official machineries or to elicit better media coverage of their election campaigns disguised as normal government activities. Since this is not the case, it would be not altogether correct to put the onus on the media to draw the dividing line. In the absence of very clear-cut guidelines on what can and what cannot be covered, verdicts on any section of the media having crossed the line will be arbitrary and therefore replete with dangers of draconian and big brotherly supervision. There is still time yet. The election office can still come out with a comprehensive list of election related events coverage which would be deemed as biased reporting instead of the vague instruction not to indulge in biased reporting. This would make things a lot easier for the section of the media which are truly independent and thus interested in fair and objective reporting only. Of those who are known to overtly incline towards one or the other contesting parties, there would be no ambiguity, for their taste and interest would be obvious to anybody. Similarly, there should be little dispute about campaign advertisements, provided these advertisements are at a cost on public exchequer and in favour of the ruling party. However if it is a political party wishing to announce its candidates in poster formats with photographs of their candidates, or an individual candidate wishing to do the same, so that their prospective supporter would not mistake them while casting votes, there should not be any objection, for this is fair and legitimate concern. That is, if these bought spaces in the newspapers do not slander opponents or are disguised as news. This being the case, even if the election office decides any form of election related advertisements should be disallowed to be published in the media, it still needs to clarify on the matter of election related news.
Take again another likely scenario in the days ahead of the election. The media would be expected by the reading public to give them news that gave the election atmosphere which invariably would include some sort of assessment of who are the prominent contenders. The media may even be expected to do interviews of prominent candidates, and the electronic media may even want to hold interactive debates with the candidates. What about these? What about speculations of the next government formation? It is understandable that the election office wants to ensure free and fair elections therefore its strictures on the media. But it must also be fair to the media in imposing these strictures therefore the need is for it to spell out in more details what constitutes unethical coverage of the elections.