Poll panel’s undue haste

The Election Commission’s promptitude in ordering FIRs against Dainik Jagran’s website smacks of undue haste, if not high-handedness and disproportionate action. The website allegedly posted the results of an exit poll which showed the Bharatiya Janata Party doing well in the first phase of UP Assembly elections.

The editor of jagran.com was arrested because of the alleged violation of directions of the Election Commission but was soon released on bail. “Kavi Nagar [Ghaziabad] police detained Shekhar Tripathi around 11 p.m. on Monday from his residence in Kaushamibi,” PTI reported. “He was later put under arrest and produced in a court which granted him bail, Senior Superintendent of Police Deepak Kumar said.”

Following the EC order, FIRs were filed in all the 15 districts where the election was held in the first phase. “Tripathi was booked under Section 188 IPC and under sections 126A and 126B of Representation of People Act 1951,” says the PTI report.

What raises questions about the poll panel’s directive is not only the immediate action it took but also its refusal to offer the media organization an opportunity to offer an explanation. It may be mentioned here that Dainik Jagran newspaper, the largest selling newspaper in the country, didn’t publish the exit poll; its website did. The group, according to PTI, also said that the “news about exit polls of Uttar Pradesh was published inadvertently on its English website and it was immediately removed after being detected by senior officials of the group.”

Throwing a journalist behind bars for an inadvertent error, which was admitted to and rectified at once, surely doesn’t augur well for the freedom of the press in India.

The issue also raises questions about the silence of those who have taken upon themselves to protect freedom of expression.

The Narendra Modi government decided some time ago to ban NDTV for its coverage of the Pathankot terror attack on January 2, 2016, on the grounds that it leaked sensitive information to the handlers of terrorists. The Editors Guild of India issued a statement condemning the government’s actions. “The Editors Guild of India strongly condemns the unprecedented decision of the inter-ministerial committee of the Union Ministry of Information Broadcasting to take NDTV India off the air for a day and demands that the order be immediately rescinded.”

The Guild went on to compare the government directive with the measures taken during the Emergency: “The decision to take the channel off the air for a day is a direct violation of the freedom of the media and therefore the citizens of India and amounts to harsh censorship imposed by the government reminiscent of the Emergency. This first-of-its-kind order to impose a blackout has seen the Central government entrust itself with the power to intervene in the functioning of the media and take arbitrary punitive action as and when it does not agree with the coverage.”

It is disheartening that no champion of liberty has questioned the Election Commission’s crackdown on the Jagran group. Perhaps it is because some media organizations are more equal than others.