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Lok Sabha elections 2019: BJP for curbs on fake news but against ‘silent period’ extension

The ruling party wants print media, door-to-door campaigning out of restriction ambit.

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Mar 12, 2019 07:14 IST
Smriti Kak Ramachandran and Rajeev Jayaswal
Smriti Kak Ramachandran and Rajeev Jayaswal
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
The Umesh Sinha Committee was constituted by the EC last year to address the ‘challenges in the wake of expansion and diversity of media platforms’.
The Umesh Sinha Committee was constituted by the EC last year to address the ‘challenges in the wake of expansion and diversity of media platforms’.(Reuters)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has favoured regulation of “fake” and “paid” news, but opposed changes in rules to extend the 48-hour silent period ahead of elections to door-to-door campaigns and print media, contrary to the position taken by most of the political parties, the Umesh Sinha Committee report said.

“Print media should not be included within ambit of section 126. Fake news should be stopped, and there should be measures to deal with ‘paid news’. Door-to-door campaigning should be exempt from purview of section 126,” the report said quoting the BJP. A copy of the report has been reviewed by HT.

Section 126 of the Representation of People Act prohibits advertising and campaigning on TV and other electronic media during the silent period.

Most political parties, including the Congress, the Janata Dal (United), the All Jharkhand Student Union, the Shiv Sena, the Trinamool Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Samajwadi Party favoured extending ban to all media , the report said.

The BJP did not respond to HT’s queries.

The Umesh Sinha Committee was constituted by the Election Commission (EC) on January 8 last year to suggest changes in the Section 126 and other sections of the Representation of the People [RP] Act, 1951 in order to address the “challenges in the wake of expansion and diversity of media platforms”.

Some parties, such as the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the National Conference wanted more deliberations on this matter among the stakeholders before taking a view, said the report, which was submitted to EC on January 10, 2019.

While announcing election dates on Sunday, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said that the implementation of Umesh Sinha Committee report, which recommended amendments to the Section 126, was pending in the law ministry.

“Section 126, at the moment doesn’t apply to print media and social media... And for that a committee was appointed. That committee gave its report two-three months back and they have recommended certain things... That proposal has been sent to the ministry of law because it involves amendments in the rules,” Arora said on Sunday.

According to the report, the Congress party said, “It is constitutionally incompatible to suggest that an advertisement that could be in violation of electoral norms when broadcast electronically does not attract the same penalties when published in a print newspaper”.

One of the BJP’s allies, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), raised some practical issues. “The party is of the view that the practice of ban on campaign during last 48 hours before conclusion of polling through public meetings should continue but ban on communications technology is not possible during the multi-phase poll,” the report said, quoting the SAD.

In its submission to the commission, the Shiv Sena, another ally of the BJP, said, “Exclusion of print media from the ambit clause B of sub Section 1 of section 126 of RP Act 1951 has been proving a regulatory anomaly”.

The BSP in its response also suggested banning campaigning in constituencies adjoining poll-going constituencies during the silent period. Both the CPM and the CPI sought more airtime on private channels for all parties.

The committee’s recommendation has been submitted to the ministry of law and if it is accepted then it can be implemented during the upcoming Lok Sabha and assembly polls that begin on April 11, said a person aware of the development who asked not to be named.

The committee suggested that print, electronic media, even intermediaries, such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Whtasapp should be brought within the purview of Section 126 to ensure voters are “not unduly influenced and are afforded a period of reflection to examine their political choice.”

The report said that during the silent period, there are “many indirect and direct methods adopted by candidates and political leaders, which may directly or indirectly influence the mind of the voters in favour or against some party/candidate”.

In its response to the committee, the AIADMK suggested extending the 48-hour period to 96 hours and restricting websites and WhatsApp groups from posting election-related material during this period. The SP suggested holding elections in a single phase in a state to overcome the problem of election-related material from being broadcast during a multi-phase election.

The committee, headed by deputy election commissioner Umesh Sinha, included nine officials from various ministries, the Broadcasters Association and the Press Council of India. It also suggested that the poll panel should write to all political parties to observe the silent period on all forms of media.

“In a multi-phase election, the prohibition period may be in effect in certain constituencies and while campaigning is ongoing in other constituencies. In such event, there should not be any direct or indirect reference amounting to soliciting support for parties or candidates in the constituencies observing silence period,” the report said.

During the December 2017 Gujarat state polls the EC asked a private channel to not broadcast an interview of Congress chief Rahul Gandhi as it violated the silent period.

Trilochan Sastry, founder member, the Association for Democratic Reforms, said the rules should apply equally to social media.

First Published: Mar 12, 2019 07:08 IST

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