Leaks: to report or not to report?

The Telangana media, by reporting the ruling party’s leaks, has become complicit in its violation of the election code of conduct.
SURESH KUMAR ALAPATI reports
The Telangana CM in election mode

 

If a ruling political party wants to break the election code of conduct by giving away freebies to woo voters, can the media be a willing party to it by reporting this news through leaks rather than through official channels, i.e. helping the party achieve the desired effect without ostensibly breaching the code?

On December 3, Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao had a meeting with three ministers from the Greater Hyderabad area. Later, his party, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) leaked information to the media that Rao was going to waive the pending water and power bills in Greater Hyderabad to help the poor. The damage to the exchequer was going to be over Rs. 400 crores. The decision, however, was not going to be officially announced owing to the election code barring such announcements.

Promptly, the news was all over the Telugu news channels. The next day, the stories, based on the leak, appeared on the front pages of all the mainstream news dailies with even the English language papers such as The Hindu and The Times of India giving the news prominence.

The TRS’ leak is aimed at the impending elections to Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC). The point to note here is that the waiver will not have any direct bearing on the GHMC elections because the voters in this election are elected representatives belonging to various political parties. But making the announcement of the waiver officially would have got the ruling party into trouble because the election code of conduct is already in place for another election that is happening – the MLC elections on December 27. 

That’s why the TRS decided to leak the waiver decision when it did because once the schedule for the GHMC election is out, it won’t be able to and there is every likelihood that the dates will be announced before the end of the present MLC election, leaving the government no gap in between for an official announcement.

Elections to the GHMC are overdue by a year. In the previous elections held in November 2009, the TRS, then fighting for the separate state of Telangana, did not field a single candidate. One reason for the reluctance was that the TRS has little say in the Greater Hyderabad area which is dominated by the so-called settlers from the Andhra region. But after the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, it has become a different ball game for the TRS as it has come to power in the new state of Telangana. Now, it cannot afford to lose the poll battle in the very nerve centre of the state - the capital Hyderabad.  It would mean a great loss of face.

To avoid this embarrassment, the TRS has been postponing the GHMC elections while trying its best to improve its position in Hyderabad. One trick was to woo Talasani Srinivas Yadav, an opposition Telugu Desam strongman and an MLA from a seat in Hyderabad to defect to the TRS. Immediately after the defection, Yadav was given a Cabinet post. Even then, the TRS could still not muster enough courage to face a by-poll in Sanath Nagar, the seat held by Yadav. Almost a year later, his resignation is still pending with the Speaker and Yadav, technically an MLA from the opposition TDP, continues to be part of the TRS government.

It would be interesting to guess how far the TRS would have gone to keep postponing elections to the GHMC had the High Court not intervened. Spurred into action by a writ petition, the High Court has set a January 31 deadline for completion of the election process to the governing body of the GHMC.

Now, here comes the catch. The present code of conduct for the MLC elections on December 27th will be in force till December 31. If the January 31 deadline set by the High Court is to be met, it is very likely that the schedule for the GHMC election will be announced before the end of this month. Once the dates are announced, the TRS cannot afford even any leak which might have a direct impact on the electorate, hence the calculated risk of leaking news of the water and power bill waiver to the media. Though this waiver, as already mentioned, will not have a direct bearing on the MLC elections, it nonetheless can run foul of the election code of conduct which is presently in force.

Surprisingly, no opposition political party in Telangana has so far protested against the leak.  All the newspapers carried identical news stories based on the leak and even wrote, amazingly, that the government measure was on hold in view of the code of conduct.  They seemed oblivious of the fact that publishing news of the leaked waiver effectively nullified the spirit of the code of conduct.

Among the 20-odd 24-hour Telugu news channels, not even one has thought it fit to take up the issue for discussion. This raises an important question. Given the fierce battle for viewers, will any news channel ignore a leak and let other channels run away with the story? Will the need to respect the code of conduct be trampled upon in the race to publish such news? It is time for the media to reflect on how artful leaks during elections, designed to influence the outcome, should be handled. 

 

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