Disqualified From Election Coverage

Do only numbers in the Lok Sabha determine the media coverage a state will get in these elections?

Disqualified From Election Coverage
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What do the General Elections mean for the media? It’s a time invested to travel across India to find out the mood of the people because the government they voted to power is for the people and by the people. What were the promises and what was delivered? What do they want from the new government and what are the issues they would vote on? The understanding is fairly simple but the challenge is the sheer size of the country.

In recent years and currently in the run up to 2014 general elections – unlike in 2009 – “India” it seems will not be covered. Prima facie because media claims it has run out of financial resources to cover the vast expanse of the country. But there is a deeper malaise in prioritising states, constituencies and regions for election coverage. 2014 will be a victim of both resource crunch as well as conservative newsroom priorities.

Uttar Pradesh,which sends 80 elected representatives to the Lok Sabha and is believed to be the decisive state in who forms the government, enjoys the privilege of being the centerpiece of election coverage. Therefore, numbers decide the size and strength of the coverage. For example, Arunachal Pradesh which is as large as West Bengal in land area of more than 80,00 square kilometres sends only 2 representatives against West Bengal’s 42. The number is proportional to the population but the election must take into account each vote.

That is why the Election Commission of India is committed to setting up a polling booth in areas where there may be just a single voter. It is this celebration of participation that makes up what we call a “democracy” – an idea which the media often misses entirely. While debates and discussions, live coverage and not-so-live opinions will roll out incessantly in a pitch higher than required on states with greater “stake”, the 8,000 voters in the stunningly beautiful Mechuka village just 29 km from the Chinese border will not even be in the imagination of newsrooms.  Is it too far from New Delhi or is it simply inaccessible or just not “newsy” enough? The first two reasons can be attributed to laziness, while the third if cited can be called erroneous.

While it is morally and ethically imperative to give voice to every part of this country , it is also of very high news value to report from the last Indian outpost in Vijaynagar where one can reach only by a AN 32 air craft if the weather permits. The “newsiness” or importance of covering Arunachal Pradesh is not something that needs to be impressed upon editors/ reporters. A substantial percentage of our defence budget is spent in maintaining the borders in Arunachal Pradesh. In 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had sanctioned Rs 20,000 crore to infrastructure schemes and development of the trans-Arunachal highway of which not much is physically visible. Is that not of news value? The road to Tawang still looks like the description in the Himalayan Blunder of 1962. India’s biggest fear is the Chinese claim on Arunachal Pradesh – but the state sends only 2 MPs so it may not be covered.

There is little logic in the explanation that only numbers in the Lok Sabha will determine the extent of coverage. For example,Jowdar village which can be approached from Ganderbal or Sonmarg in Kahsmir has only 15-20 houses but it is an interesting village. The houses in this village have no windows because during winters it gets buried under 25-35 feet of snow and all the houses are interconnected by tunnels where the residents spend the entire winter. Should these people not be accounted for when we go around asking voters whom they will vote for and what issues will determine their vote?

Manmohan Singh has been using the same sentence every year in his annual speech to chief ministers where he highlights that “Left wing extremism is the biggest internal security challenge of the country”. I suppose media too is seized of the matter. If so, why does election coverage almost black out the entire swathe of Maoist corridor? In the so-called “liberated zone” of Malkangiri, 200 families who had to give away their land in the Sixties for a dam are still awaiting land compensation or even electricity. They have not joined forces with the Maoists hoping that they will get jobs, if not land. They will vote in 2014 but it will not be televised. In the assembly elections in Chhatisgarh last year, Bastar which is the heartland of Maoists saw a 40% voter turnout. That in itself was one of the biggest stories, which found a mere mentioned but no real coverage. Is it too risky for reporters to venture there? Is risk supposed to be a deterrent to journalists? If polling personnel can go there, why not journalists (with the exception of a few)?Perhaps it is because Bastar has just one (1) LS seat.

Manipur recorded 76 incidents of bomb blast in 2013 killing 55 people. But it will hardly be covered because it has only two seats in the Lok Sabha. Manipur’s lack of development and infrastructure and its abysmal record of human rights are not issues which the media considers important to highlight. They may, however, mention it in passing. Tripura’s success in countering insurgency and recording an extraordinary growth rate and development parameters will not be a study in good governance. Tripura also has only 2 Lok Sabha seats. Similarly, most of India’s northeast, Jammu and Kashmir and the Maoist-dominated districts will fall off the election map of media coverage defeating the very purpose of reporting from the ground.

If news value propels news-gathering then surely these places make the cut. Even if it is not “newsy”, election coverage cannot and should not be selective. Residents in Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Island cannot be dispossessed just because they send 1 member to the Lok Sabha or are too far from the centre of the news world. The electionsare an opportunity to hear India speak. It will be another opportunity missed.

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