Is Election Commission up to the task?
The fact that an election commissioner has said that journalists are the "eyes and ears" of the Election Commission is music to our ears. We are even more pleased that his words were followed up with action, as the EC has proposed to the law ministry that a provision be added to the relevant law that will protect journalists covering elections. The EC wants a penalty of up to three years in jail as well as a fine for obstruction of the duties of journalists.
The role that the media plays in elections has become very crucial in recent years, with growing concerns that citizens are not being able to exercise their right to participate in free and fair elections. Despite the violence that has marred polls in almost every corner of the country over the years – the latest of which saw a 10-month-old toddler killed during Union Parishad elections in Thakurgaon – journalists continued to do their job to keep the nation informed about election-related developments.
While we commend the step to protect journalists, we think it cannot exist in isolation from other measures that must be put into place to ensure fair and safe elections.
This, however, has not been easy. There have been repeated instances of attacks on journalists by candidates and their supporters. Despite the special identity cards that are issued by the EC to facilitate election coverage, journalists have been stopped from entering polling stations, including by members of law enforcement agencies. There have even been instances of journalists being arrested under the controversial Digital Security Act for reporting on election irregularities. Therefore, we applaud the EC for taking steps to protect journalists, and we hope that this provision will be approved and codified into law as speedily as possible.
According to a report by this daily, the proposal includes giving the EC the power to cancel polls, and the presiding officer the power to close polls. The EC already has enough authority to take drastic action if any complaint is received during polling. However, in recent times, we have rarely seen it take steps when such complaints are received, or even when electoral codes of conduct are openly flouted, such as when a ruling party MP continued to campaign for a mayoral candidate in Cumilla even after the EC "requested" him to leave his constituency. So, how can we be sure that the EC will be tough on such electoral irregularities, including obstructing journalists, this time around? How can we be sure that this new provision will not be arbitrarily used? Clearly, the EC – because of how it handled its affairs so far, including authorising the use of EVMs despite objections from many parties – has a credibility issue of its own making.
So while we commend the step to protect journalists, we think it cannot exist in isolation from other measures that must be put into place to ensure fair and safe elections. The EC must prove itself up to the task.