These are some statements that came out of the Second Regional Consultation on Electoral Reforms, organised by the Union Law and Justice Ministry in Kolkata on January 9.
From The Hindu: Chief Election Commissioner S. Y. Quraishi on Sunday favoured banning of opinion polls with the enforcement of the model code of conduct and said the constitutional body should also be empowered with the right to deregister fake political parties. Calling for stringent action to curb the growth of money power and ‘paid news’, Mr. Quraishi said the EC had, time and again, suggested that persons having criminal records be debarred from contesting any election. The CEC said it was also opposed to state funding of elections. “If it is done, political parties will get more money and there is possibility of misuse of money.” He suggested that period of punishment for disqualification of candidates be extended from three years to five years.
The idea of controlling bad practices with ‘bans’ is an idea that will seldom succeed. There is no doubt that our media peddles a lot of biased opinion polls but that is a small price to pay for freedom of speech. The culture of banning polls, books and other expressions or speech runs contrary to the very idea of democracy. The only way fake opinion polls will fade or stop is when people get wiser and show greater maturity. This is already happening to some extent and will continue to happen. One cannot keep fooling people all the time. Fact is, people have made opinion polls look outright silly on many occasions. So whether the opinion poll is run before or after the model code of conduct comes into force doesn’t really matter.
And how does one act against ‘paid news’? Obviously, this is not something that is paid for with a cheque and supported by a bill by the publisher. It is clearly a ‘black-money’ operation. Therefore, the same action required to target black money may perhaps be the answer.
Much as mediacrooks abound, the temptation to fiddle with freedom of speech and expression must be curbed. The two main councils that guide the news and advertising media are Press Council of India and the Advertising Standards Council of India. Neither of them have any punitive provisions for infringements and do not have any power other than recording or pointing out unfair or unethical practices.
The EC also suggests that punishment for disqualification of candidates be extended from 3 to 5 years. My knowledge is limited but I cannot recollect a single disqualified candidate being punished by any sentence. So it’s not at all clear what purpose such a change would serve.
It’s all very nice to talk about freedom of speech, free press, democracy and so on in this country. But is this really true? Let’s take a look at the Press Freedom Index 2010 put out by Reporters Without Borders. Out of over 200 countries surveyed India stands at 122! That should be some indication of the free speech enjoyed in the world’s largest democracy.
Some of the countries ranked ahead of India are Ghana, Mali, Costa Rica, Taiwan, Burkina Faso, Haiti, Central African Republic, Kenya, Kuwait, Tonga, Sierra Leone, Nepal and some. The UK ranks 19, USA 20 and France 44. Some of the countries we lead in the rankings are Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, Eritrea and some. That tells a tale of its own!
The only way we can have a responsible media is to allow them complete freedom with proper regulations in place. Currently there is neither proper regulation nor complete freedom. And this is not just for the press and the media. This is for every citizen in this country. Let's have the courage to tolerate the Arundhatis and the Binayaks, no matter how much the provocation. You can muzzle speech, you cannot muzzle 'thought'!