Role of television during polls
TELEVISION can be a great democratic enabler, but it can also be an electoral impediment — at least if good sense and the rules are ignored. With local government elections across the country entering the last phase, the polling day coverage of much of the broadcast media so far has fallen woefully short of the required, lawful standard.
Consider much of the TV coverage of the recent elections in Sindh, Punjab and Islamabad. Speeches by national political leaders were broadcast live — speeches which were unambiguously political and drifted far from the ostensible purpose of thanking party workers for their efforts.
Candidates were interviewed and asked partisan and leading questions. News anchors queried political analysts about who were the likely winners and why. In some cases, there have even been predictions about specific results. It has made for some rather grim viewing — though perhaps a great deal of it remains uninformed by the ethics of election coverage and the specific requirements of polling day itself.
There is a compelling reason why polling day coverage by the media needs to remain neutral and even-handed: it is not out of respect for the political parties and the candidates, but the duty that is owed to the voter, the public itself.
Skewed, partisan and leading coverage can potentially impact on how a voter chooses to vote — or if he/she chooses to vote at all. For example, speculation and commentary during polling hours about voter turnout can affect whether a voter chooses to make the trip to the polling station.
Furthermore, claims of a dominant victory for one side or another could conceivably dampen turnout for the reportedly losing side.
The very first point in the ECP’s code of conduct for the media issued in August for coverage of LG elections in Punjab states: “Neither any Radio or Television Channel shall broadcast/telecast nor any Print Media shall publish anything that adversely affects the public opinion against a particular party or candidate.”
The coverage of few news channels would pass that basic test on polling day.
The problem here is clearly one of regulation — but by an impartial, independent and empowered media regulator.
Pemra’s selective enthusiasm and intervention — often at the behest of the political government or the military establishment — creates more problems than it resolves.
Perhaps now with a full-time chairman, Pemra can try and establish its independence and simultaneously reach out to the broadcast media to engage it in a meaningful dialogue. Where egregious violations of sensible media conduct are found, Pemra has the power to act within the existing legal framework.
The most obvious and immediate test would be local government elections in Karachi.
The massive media presence in the city and the many controversies surrounding the principal political party in the city, the MQM, could lead to many on-air blunders on polling day.