Voter participation has not been an area of keen media interest: N. Ram

The need for the media to take voluntary, not paid, ownership of creating awareness for better participation of voters in the election process was recommended at a roundtable on the “Role of media in building voters' awareness” here on Friday.

The recommendation was part of a national consultation on voters' participation organised by the Election Commission (EC). Other roundtables at the consultation pertained to fighting urban apathy, connecting with youth in the above 18 category, engaging civil society in voters' education and electoral participation, challenges for women's participation, using social marketing strategies to enhance participation, bringing the excluded population into the fold, and restructuring curriculum to inculcate values of democratic and electoral practices.

At the roundtable on the “Role of media in building voters' awareness” moderated by Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu N. Ram, it was noted that voter participation had not been an area of keen media interest and that it had focused more on the politics of election and election dramas.

Voter participation was described as voters participating in “an informed way in elections that are free, fair and socially just.” It was emphasised that developing a sense of citizenship, overcoming feelings of alienation and marginalisation was also integrally connected with voter participation.

Participants in the discussion said that there was also a need for greater and sustained interaction between the EC and the media at various levels — working journalists, senior editors and media proprietors.

It was pointed out that the print medium had been used extensively but invariably through paid advertisements.

“This needs to change and all the media should do more in this regard on a voluntary and unpaid basis,” the group recommended.

‘Unexciting exercise'

EC Director-General Akshaya Raut noted that encouraging voter participation was not a very exciting exercise for the private media.

According to Mr. Raut, rather than the media writing on their own about encouraging voter participation, they preferred advertisements from the EC so that they could take payments for them. The Hindu came in for praise for taking up on its own stories regarding paid news and electoral reforms.

Chairman of the Centre for Media Studies Bhaskara Rao said that “pre-emptive reporting” was a reason for less voter participation, especially in areas where television viewership was high. The print medium has to take more responsibility as its credibility is relatively more, he added.

According to Dr. Rao, the paid news phenomenon was not new but was linked to opinion polls.

The EC's efforts in engaging largely on an unpaid basis with the All India Radio, Doordarshan and the field publicity division of the government to spread voter awareness were appreciated.

At the inaugural session, Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi said: “Elections should not just be free and fair but also socially just and participative to make democracy more meaningful.

“In terms of electoral participation, we are still ahead of many democratic countries in the world, but we are still short of the ideal. In several parts of the world, particularly developing countries, voter participation has been quite high compared to India.”

Mr. Quraishi also listed the various initiatives taken by the EC to encourage voter participation.

Emphasising on the youth as a crucial element of participation, the former President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, said: “The message from the youth, based on interactions with them, is that the youth of India want to live in an economically developed state. The leaders must speak about their vision for the nation and should work and succeed with integrity.”

He further emphasised the importance of developmental politics.

Dr. Kalam, who also interacted with the audience, took a number of questions related to voting, politics, politicians and paid news.

Speaking about paid news at a separate session, Mr. Ram noted that paid news, as a phenomenon which came to the fore during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and also in some Assembly polls, had given a “very bad name” to the press.

Quoting Vice-President Hamid Ansari, Mr. Ram said: “Paid news created double jeopardy. It wrecked the concept of a free and fair press and undermined the democratic electoral process…this should not be looked at in isolation but as part of a larger problem which includes private treaties.”

Journalists P. Sainath and the late Prabhash Joshi were lauded for their role in fighting the paid news phenomenon.

Mr. Ram said: “There is a need to join hands to eliminate and crack down on paid news through discussions involving working journalists and media organisations, and drawing up some code of practice relating to this.”