For almost a month after the announcement of the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP got nearly 160 hours of "airtime coverage" on DD News and its regional channels while the Congress managed half of that, The Indian Express has learnt.
According to a report shared by DD News with the Election Commission (EC) on April 5, on the airtime provided to all political parties from the announcement of the polls till that day, the principal opposition party stood second in terms of coverage with roughly 80 hours, followed by the CPM with eight hours.
Clear EC norms on matter
It was based on this report that the EC, on April 9, called the DD airtime to parties "disproportionate" and "not balanced". It asked the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry to direct DD News to "desist from extending any preferential or disproportionate airtime coverage in favour of any party".
A senior source at the public broadcaster justified the above break-up on the ground that the BJP has a majority of the seats in the Lok Sabha and is in power in 16 states, while the Congress is much smaller. Hence, both parties, the source argued, could not be on an equal footing when it came to coverage. "But if a comparison is made between the BJP and all opposition parties combined, the airtime given is balanced," the source added.
However, The Indian Express has learnt that the EC did not find this explanation - as also submitted by DD News in its April 5 report to it - acceptable.
The EC had further found DD News's political coverage "not in accordance with the principle of maintaining neutrality and level-playing field".
Asked why the Congress had half the airtime compared to the BJP, Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati told The Indian Express, "Coverage is a continuous process spanning the entire network of more than 30 TV channel/stations and several 100 radio stations. It would be flawed and inaccurate to draw inferences from a snapshot at any given point in time. However we have taken note of the observations and comments of the Election Commisson regarding proportion of coverage as was conveyed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting."
He added, "In response we have sensitised the entire network to these observations and comments. Additionally a committee has also been set up for editorial supervision and monitoring. Periodically data will be collected and a report will be shared with the Election Commission."
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"Let me also add that DD and AIR as media units of Prasar Bharati have a primary responsibility to discharge as mandated by the Prasar Bharati Act Section 12. Editorial decisions will be guided by sub section 2(b) of Section 12 of the Act. It may also be borne in mind that the Public Broadcaster has to compete with the private broadcasters for viewership and listenership and hence news worthiness is also an important consideration in editorial decisions. However every effort will be made to ensure balance and compliance while discharging our mandate as required by the Act and complying with the Election Commission's observations and comments," he said.
The matter of DD News and its coverage of the Lok Sabha elections was first raised by the Congress in a memorandum to the EC on April 1. The Congress had alleged that DD News was giving preferential treatment to the BJP and cited the 84-minute live broadcast of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 'Main bhi Chowkidar hoon' address on March 31 as an example.
Earlier, CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury had requested the EC to ask DD and AIR to air the speeches and statements of political leaders as prominently as they aired Modi's address to the nation on the anti-satellite test.
The EC had then sought a report from DD.