Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Exit poll of first phase of elections: broad trends

In pursuance of the Order passed by the Supreme Court on 19-01-2009, in writ petition ( C) No. 207 of 2004, the Election Commission issued Guidelines, on 17th February, 09, to be followed in the matter of publication/dissemination of results of opinion polls and exit polls in connection with the current elections to the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies. As per the guidelines, result of opinion/exit polls carried out at any time, cannot be published, publicized or disseminated in any manner, during the period starting from 48 hours before the hour fixed for conclusion of poll in the first phase of election and till the conclusion of poll in the last phase of election. The period referred to in the guidelines starts from 3 PM on the 14th April, 09 and will continue till the conclusion of poll in the last ( the fifth) phase of election.

The language of the E.C.'s above order appears to be causing some confusion. The phrase "cannot be published, publicized or disseminated in any manner" is difficult to comprehend. What if a person who has access to the results of the exit polls, conveys it by word of mouth, or even chooses to blog? Does this restriction apply only to actual projection of seats to be won by respective parties or even to projection of broad trends?

This blogger, who also happens to be a reputed columnist and a television commentator, gives us a glimpse of the broad trends projected by an exit poll on April 16. Read on, and quench your curiosity. The author of this blog apparently believes that the E.C.'s restriction does not apply to him, even while conceding that it would not be proper to divulge the actual seat tally projected by the exit poll.

4 comments:

Anup said...

Dear Venkatesan,

I think the wording of the EC guidelines is wide enough to cover Swapan Dasgupta's blog post. Before I respond to the issues you raised, the relevant part (Para 7) of the EC guidelines of February 2009 is produced below:

(http://eci.nic.in/press/current/pn170209.pdf)

"No result of any opinion poll or exit poll conducted at any time shall be published, publicized or disseminated in any manner, whatsoever, by print, electronic or any other media, at any time..."

There are 2 Explanations that follow para 7 of the EC guidelines. The first one concerns an inclusive definition of 'electronic media' and I dont think that concerns us here.
The second explanation is of the word 'dissemination'. Explanation (b) reads: 'Dissemination' includes publication in any newspaper, magazine or periodical, or display on electronic media, or circulation by means of any pamphlet, poster, placard, handbill or any other document.

I shall attempt to respond to the issues you raised in your post:

i. Are blog posts covered by the EC guidelines?

The guidelines clearly apply to print, electronic media and any other media. It would be a reasonable construction that the the term "any other media" would include the internet.
It is interesting to note that in the above mentioned EC guideline, para 1 refers to the 1998 guidelines. In the 1998 guidelines the reference (restricted to opinion polls ofcourse) was only to the print and electronic media. The phrase 'any other media' has been specifically added in the 2009 guidelines. It is difficult to see how Swapan Dasgupta's blog post on the internet would not be covered by this phrase.

The application of the guidelines to your post might be another interesting discussion.

ii.) Is conveying by 'word of mouth' proscribed by the EC guidelines?
Even though the word 'dissemination' has been explained separately, it is only an inclusive definition and not limited to it. But a careful reading of para 7 of the EC guidelines seems to suggest that there is a requirement of a medium ('print, electronic or any other media')through which the publication, publicizing or dissemination must happen. It would be difficult to make an argument that 'word of mouth' constitutes any such medium.

iii) Does it apply only to an actual projection of seats or is even a broad projection covered?

Para 7 begins with the words "No result of any opinion poll or exit poll ...". The broad trends that Swapan Dasgupta has referred to arises from an exit poll and it is clearly an integral aspect of the results of the exit poll. It would seem that the EC sought to proscribe all results that can be garnered from an exit poll. Reading the EC guidelines as proscribing only actual projecton of seats, would leave the door open for organisations/ individuals to publish and disseminate results such as vote share, voting patterns across various groups etc.

V.Venkatesan said...

Anup,
Will your stand be valid even if the blogger is silent on who organised the exit poll, where and when. Thanks for pointing out para 7 of the guidelines which I missed. I relied on the press release.

You left unanswered the applicability of the guidelines to my post. The question is whether the publication is likely to influence the voter.

In my view, blogs are less likely to influence than a television channel or a print newspaper, which have greater degree of control over what is disseminated, and therefore, carry greater credibility than personal blogs. A group blog like ours certainly carries credibility, as opposed to an individual blog. But read in the context of the blogger's own advice to read the broad trends with caution, it is less likely to influence the voter.

I also believe the guidelines may not apply to my post on this because it is preceded by a discussion on the meaning of the guidelines, and the reference to Swapan's post is only by way of clarifying my doubt. I have the freedom to invite my reader to quench her curiosity about the broad trends, which are unlikely to influence the readers' voting decision, so as to decisively change the trend in the subsequent phases. Because, as I said, the readership of the blog is limited, and unless the print and electronic media decide to circulate what is published on a blog, there is no violation of the guideline.

Anup said...

Venkatesan,

I would like to first clarify an omission I made in my earlier comment. The 1998 guidelines I mentioned before restricts itself to print and electronic media not just in the context of opinion polls, it is also used in the context of exit polls.

Responding to the issues you raised in your reply:

i.) Whether my response will be valid even when the blogger is silent on the details of the exit poll?

I would argue that my opinion would still be valid and I draw support for that position from the EC guidelines. I have 2 reasons:

a. Para 1(iv)of the February 2009 guidelines indicates that in 1998 any organisation or agency publishing, publicizing, disseminating the results must also indicate various other details like methodology, sample size, professional background and experience of individuals involved etc. Such a requirement is however absent in the 2009 guidelines.

b.) Even if it were to be somehow argued that it is applicable in these elections, I do not think it affects the validity of my response. Para 1.iv) in 1998 applied to those periods when organisations and agencies were allowed to publish, publicize and disseminate the results of opinion and exit polls. I think the appropriate construction of the provision would be that when you are allowed to publish etc, you then HAVE TO do x, y,z. They do not determine what is constitutive of publishing, publicizing and dissemination. It is only a direction of how it is to be validly done when you have the freedom to publicize them.

For the above 2 reasons, it amounts to publishing, publicizing or disseminating (atleast during the banned periods) despite not providing the details.

ii) The issue of blogs being different from other forms of media in this context.

Even if I concede your general points on credibility and influence of blogs, it does not affect the legal implications of the EC guidelines. No where in the EC guidelines is the 'ability to influence' a relevant consideration . Whether Swapan Dasgutpa's post actually influences nobody or influences 10,000 voters is irrelevant under the guidelines. Whether it 'should' be a relevant consideration while framing the guidelines is another debate. That it amounts to either publishing, publicizing or disseminating is beyond doubt in my opinion.

iii) Applicability of the EC guidelines to your post.

I had not thought through the issue at that point and therefore did not answer my own question. It is something that crossed my mind and I thought it was interesting enough to put it out there.

If the EC guidelines apply to blogs on the internet, it is difficult to see why your post also does not amount to publicizing 'a result' of an exit poll. The arguments that you raise for the inapplicability of the guidelines can be challenged at a couple of levels.

I believe the intention behind the post is not relevant. You argue that you have the freedom to address the curiosity of your readers' because it is unlikely to influence the readers' voting decision. As I have argued before whether it is likely to influence a voter is an irrelevant consideration under the EC guidelines. You then proceed to argue that it will hardly affect the trend in subsequent phases. While that might be empirically true it is just as irrelevant in deciding the applicability of the EC guidelines to your post.

V.Venkatesan said...

Anup,
the fact that the E.C. did not define "any other media" like it has done in the case of "electronic media" certainly gives scope for a different opinion on whether blogs could come under the restriction. Supposing a person who has access to the data disseminates it by making telephone calls to as many people in the constituency or SMS it to as many voters as possible, will the restriction apply? Or let us say, the person sends a group email to as many addressees as possible. The absence of definition of any other media only suggests that the E.C. might not have intended to restrict internet content. Yes, once the internet content finds its way to print and electronic media, then the restrictions apply. If you apply the principle of ejusdem generis, then it would mean that "any other media" must be similar to print and electronic media in terms of their content, reach and circulation. The internet in India is still way behind the print and electronic media in this respect.