Elections and the airwaves

Source: The post is based on the article “Elections and the airwavespublished in The Hindu on 19th May 2023

What is the News?

The six recognised national parties and one recognised State party were provided free airtime on public broadcasters during the recently concluded Karnataka Assembly elections.

The parties were allocated a base time of 45 minutes and additional slots based on performance in previous polls.

What is the rationale behind giving free airtime on public broadcasters to National and State parties?

Legal Basis: The facility to provide free airtime for political parties during elections was given a statutory basis through the 2003 amendment to the Representation of People Act, 1951.

Supreme Court judgment: The Supreme Court, in its The Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting vs Cricket Association of Bengal and ANR, 1995 judgment held that airwaves are public property and their use should serve the greater public good. 

– Elections being the lifeblood of a democracy, the misuse or abuse of airwaves to gain an unfair electoral advantage is a key regulatory apprehension of governments around the world.

What is the process of allocating free airtime to public broadcasters?

Time vouchers are distributed by a lottery system by the Election Commission in a transparent process to obviate any preferential treatment in getting primetime slots.

The transcripts of political parties are vetted to ensure that they adhere to relevant codes. These codes proscribe any content which is inter alia critical of other countries, attack religions or other communities or incites violence and personal attacks. 

In case of any disagreements over the content of the script as vetted by the public broadcaster, it is referred to an Apex Committee comprising members from Akashvani and DD whose decision is final.

What is the practice followed in other countries on this?

In the U.S, the Federal Communications Commission which regulates the electronic media in the country, devised the fairness doctrine to keep electioneering on the airwaves equitable.

– The now-defunct fairness doctrine placed a positive obligation on broadcasters who carry political content of one candidate on its programme to extend the same to another candidate in the electoral fray.

In the U.K, political parties are allocated designated slots by Parliament, called party political broadcasts (PPBs) to convey important political information to the people.

– The British Communication watchdog, Ofcom, is responsible for ensuring that PPBs are included in every licensed public service television channel and commercial radio services. Similar requirements are adopted in Singapore, Brazil and Japan.

What are the operational challenges in this?

Firstly, the scheme is available to national and recognised State parties Hence, many analysts argue that it is not truly equitable.

– There are calls for extending the provision to cover private broadcasters akin to the fairness doctrine of the USA designated slot may be mandated for private channels to air content equitably and provide a platform for smaller parties and candidates. 

– However, the ECI is constrained by the considerations of practicality and the fact that airwaves are not an infinite resource.

Secondly, the Apex Committee comprises officials from Akashvani and DD. They are expected to sit in review of their own decision in case of conflict with the political party on the content of the transcript which leaves scope for conflict of interest.

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