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Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation - May 03, 2019

Free & fair elections and free & fair media are two sides of the same coin. One can not exist without the other! The United Nations’ Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have made the freedom as one of the key targets for entire humanity. For realization of freedom, democracy is an essential condition and the democracy stands on the twin pillars of election and expression. Purpose of free expressions is to enable citizens to make right choices, particularly in the election. On the other hand, free elections – i.e. free from influences of money, muscle or any other unethical powers and practices – strengthens framework of freedom of expression. These principles are enshrined in its best form in the Indian constitution that has ensured thriving of democracy on as diverse and as large a country as India.

Indian media has earned its fame for fearless and impartial reporting of social, political and economic phenomenon and most important of it all is reporting of elections at the time of charged political atmosphere. This reputation is best reflected in many vernacular phrases that meant – media me aaya hai (i.e. it has been published in media). This expression by common people shows that the most important parameter to distinguish between rumour and reality is whether media has published the news or not! In the print and radio journalism, there are enough checks for verification of a news that has given this medium immense credibility. However, advent of electronic media has changed the rules of behavior. The change, as it happened, was not only for the media and journalists but for the people as well. Sensationalism has been placed above all the ethics, in particular above the truth, in the age of electronic media. The 24 into 7 competition amongst several news channels to broadcast reports compelled them to make the news as much sensational and entertaining as possible. A new generation of viewers have been created within a decade, who demand more of sensationalism rather than depth and truth.

The social media has added new dimension to sensationalism in the form of fake news, which has emerged as a biggest challenge for credibility of media. The fake news during election time has acquired a gigantic proportion of menace wherein voters are bombarded with so much of false information or with the half-truth that they won’t be able to make a fair choice in exercising their franchise. In many parts of India, fake news has already overtaken other electoral malpractices such as distribution of money and/or liquor and physical violence against the voters. The digital media platforms are capable enough to corrupt the minds of people with fake and hate messaging. Not only this, the digital platforms have deep penetration in the private life of citizens and indulged in providing private information to governmental or political organizations. This has made it necessary to not only have model code of ethics for all media platforms but also to make them accountable for violation of such ethical code. The problem is not limited to India, rather it is an import from the western democracies as exemplified by the case against Facebook in the United States. It is a high time for all media platforms to realize that their existence depend on democracy, which can flourish only on the basis of truth and not disinformation. Let us take a pledge on today’s World Press Freedom Day to uphold ethics in journalism as there can not be freedom without responsibility and accountability.

- Prof. Parimal Maya Sudhakar