Manifesto release 72 hours before poll begins: EC panel

The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) should be amended to ensure that political parties release their manifesto at least 72 hours before voting ends in the first phase of polls, a committee set up by the Election Commission has recommended

Section 126 of the RP Act prohibits displaying any election matter by means, inter alia, of television or similar apparatus, during the period of 48 hours before the hour fixed for conclusion of poll in a constituency.

“Election matter” has been defined in that Section as any matter intended or calculated to influence or affect the result of an election.

The provision prohibits the conduct of Exit poll and dissemination of their results during the period mentioned therein, in the hour fixed for the commencement of polls in the first phase and half hour after the time fixed for a close of poll for the last phase in all the States.

Violation of the provisions of Section 126 is punishable with imprisonment up to a period of two years, or with fine or both.

What has been suggested?

Internet service providers and social media companies should take down content violating the 48-hour ban on campaigning prior to polling, instantly and latest within 3 hours of EC issuing such a direction.

Amend Section 126(1) of the R P Act to impose the “campaign silence period” on print, electronic media, and intermediaries. The definition of intermediaries, as per Section 2(w) of the Information Technology Act, includes telecom service providers, internet service providers, web-hosting service providers, search engines, etc.

Bring in changes in the model code of conduct to ensure that parties release their manifesto at least 72 hours prior to polling (or 72 hours prior to polling for the first phase in a multi-phase election).

Star campaigners should desist from addressing press conferences or giving interviews on election matters during the silence period. Also, in a multi-phased election, there should be no direct or indirect reference seeking support for parties/candidates in constituencies observing silence period.

Intermediaries should ensure that their platforms are not misused to vitiate free and fair polls. This would include a notification mechanism by which EC may notify the platform of potential violations of Section 126 of the R P Act.

While EC will appoint an officer to liaise with the intermediaries, the latter should open a special grievance redressal channel for EC and have a dedicated team during the election period to interface with and take quick action on receipt of EC order to take down or disable content in violation of R P Act.

Intermediaries should report to the Commission on measures taken to prevent abuse of their platforms, including generating publicly-available action taken reports. All political advertisements may be clearly labeled as such and be pre-approved by an EC-appointed content monitoring committee.

The intermediaries would also need to maintain a repository of political advertisements with information on their sponsors, expenditure and targeted reach.

Significance and implications:

The recommendations made by the Committee, when implemented will help in minimizing the possible interference of activities which aim at indirectly influencing voters during the valuable silence period of 48 hours provided to them.

The task of maintaining campaign silence during last 48 hours before the conclusion of polling is becoming increasingly onerous in light of the increasing influence of digital media. So, apart from the regulation by law and ECI instructions, the resolve, proactive support and sustained effort by all stakeholders is necessary to contain the evil impact.

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