It has been a long time since my last post was published on Legal Drift. I got mails, facebook messages and a number of reminders from my readers who were waiting to read something new. Due to some other professional commitments, I was unable publish any new article. I apologize to all my readers for the delay in posts and assure them that this would never re-occur.
Presently, everyone is worried about the growing corruption in the nation. Where does this corruption hail from? Politicians; Who elects them? We, the citizens of India; How do these politicians convince us to vote for them? By paying news channels which in turn focus on publicizing these people before masses.
I still remember the 2003 elections in Rajasthan. Everyone thought Gehlot would be re-elected as the Chief Minister. Hardly a few people were aware of the presence of Mrs. Vasundhra Raje Scindhiya as the candidate for the opposition. But then something happened that changed the entire course of things in a couple of months. The local media channels and newspapers started promoting BJP with all vigor. They conceptualized brilliant advertisements, banners and slogans to prove their point. Resultantly, congress lost the elections by a substantial margin. This is the power of “paid news”.
Back in 2003, paid news had played a less significant role in changing the outcome of elections but this culture of “purchasing news” became widespread in both Lok Sabha and assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana of 2009. Even though, the Election Commission through a circular in 2010 cautioned the chief electoral officers of all states and union territories about this mal-practice a lot is still required to be done in this regard.
Concept of Paid News:
Independence of media is considered most vital in a democratic set-up. An accountable and responsible media helps the citizens to make informed political decisions at all levels. Unfortunately, nowadays the concept of “paid news” is on a rise. Most of the political parties sponsor particular news channels (in cash or in kind) to purchase certain journalistic loyalties in return. This tradeoff between the political parties and media houses results in manipulation and filtration of relevant information which often leads the masses to make wrong choices.
The Sections 77 and 123(6) of the (Representation of the People) Act prescribe accounting and ceiling of election expenses and exceeding these prescribed limits may be construed as a corrupt practice in elections. Any article or advertisement that either eulogise or denigrate a particular candidate or party may attract serious legal action against the publisher as well as the printer. It is compulsory for the publisher of an election advertisement and pamphlet to print his/her name and address as well as that of the printer under the provisions of Section 127 of the RPA, any default may result in imprisonment up to two years and/or a fine of Rs.2,000. Moreover, under Section 171-H of the Indian Penal Code, a fine of Rs 500 may be imposed if found guilty for making or accepting illegal payments for elections.
How effectively have we curbed the practice of paid news?
Even though over 100 show-cause notices have been served to the candidates no successful inquiries have been conducted yet. The circumstantial nature of the evidence has helped to cloak the deeds of both media houses as well as particular candidates and parties. Most of these transactions remain undisclosed and secretive. Interestingly the print media enjoys greater freedom than the electronic media. In a noted judgement of Supreme Court which came in 2004, the court observed that the ban on electronic media to refrain from broadcasting news related to election campaigns 48 hours before polling does not apply to print media. Hence the newspapers are allowed to publish campaign news even on the polling day.
What needs to be done?
States like Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal would be soon conducting assembly elections. An effective and efficient media regulatory mechanism is required to tackle this unethical and illegal practice. An independent regulatory body may be constituted which may consist members of Press Council of India. The previous efforts by the Election Commission to curb this practice have not proved very fruitful. The Election Commission should be given greater powers and responsibilities to tackle this problem.
Both substantive and procedural aspects of law relating to paid news must be revised. A higher monetary fine should be imposed on people involved in such transactions. The government is also planning to amend the Representation of People Act which would definitely prove useful. A duty to examine instances of paid news must be vested in responsible public officers like district collectors. This would ensure an external regulatory mechanism. Guidelines should be laid down for the news agencies to make special efforts to distinguish routine news from paid news. This would help readers to make informed decisions.
“Let no money color our opinion. For a responsible media we ourselves need to be responsible readers and above all responsible voters.”