In an order that could have a far-reaching effect on the revenues of TV channels, the Election Commission has said that political parties will not be allowed to buy airtime for campaigns on the electronic media.
The order became necessary following a judgment by the Andhra Pradesh High Court delivered three days before the Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan Assembly elections that cable TV could be used for political campaigns.
The judgment came too late to have much impact on the election campaign then but the information and broadcasting ministry was exercised about it and wrote to the Election Commission on the issue when the Lok Sabha elections came around.
The ministry’s argument was that it was dangerous to allow political campaigns on TV channels which would have involved parties buying airtime, because the government would not be able to monitor what kind of campaigns were on TV.
“Tomorrow, BJP workers in say, Gujarat, can say anything they want on TV, during time bought by the BJP. They can make insinuations against Sonia Gandhi. Conversely, the Congress can level any allegation it might want to against Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The ministry does not have the staff to monitor the 13 news channels, more than 100 regional news channels and hundreds of illegal cable channels” ministry officials said.
Accordingly, officials petitioned to the Election Commission last week to re-examine the Andhra Pradesh High Court judgment that had lifted the ban.
The Election Commission examined the court ruling and found that it had not struck down Rule 7 (3) of the Cable Television Network Rules which prohibits advertisements on cable television of a political nature or towards any political end and ordered that the ban would continue.
Although at the organisational level, the BJP had objected to the government taking this position, Information Minister Ravishankar Prasad stuck to his guns that TV should not broadcast only because some political parties had the resources to buy time and others didn’t.
It may be recalled that during the Gujarat assembly elections, hole-in-the-wall cable channels all over Gujarat had campaigned for the BJP to the hilt, and on several occasion, the campaign had blatantly communal overtones.
The capacity to buy cable time in a constituency like Siwan (Bihar), that is dominated by criminalised politics would effectively work against other political outfits which did not have as many resources, sources said. This could undermine the spirit of democracy and supplant it by the money factor.
However, resources of TV channels that could have made money by this activity on the side, had dried up by the order. As things stand today, political propaganda by parties is not permitted but they can take part in debates, discussions and programmes hosted by channels.
Time bought by ministries to showcase their achievements will be aired only till the model code of conduct is not imposed.