Paying for sins

Ever since complaints about the publication of ‘paid news’ by a section of the media surfaced after last year’s elections, the phenomenon has been discussed extensively in parliament and in public fora and by professional bodies connected with the media. There have been expressions of outrage but no concrete proposals have emerged on how to deal with the problem. It was noticed that during the elections many candidates secured favourable coverage from news media by making payments to them and those who did not pay were blacked out. Media houses sold news space to parties and politicians without informing the readers that they were actually paid for. The practice was resorted to by both print and electronic media. This amounted to cheating the readers and viewers. Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan’s case specifically attracted attention as he officially spent only Rs 11,000 on newspaper advertisements but received a lot of favourable news coverage, reportedly on payment, during the elections.
The Election Commission has now asked the Press Council of India to define paid news and frame guidelines so that it can handle complaints against candidates. Paid news can be seen both as a violation of journalistic ethics and as an electoral malpractice. The Press Council and bodies like the Editors’ Guild have condemned the practice but these bodies are not in a position to stop or curb it. The Press Council has no penal powers and therefore cannot take any action against a newspaper or journalist who violates journalistic norms.

But  the Election Commission is in better position to act against erring political parties and candidates. Candidates violate the rules on election expenditure when they actually secure advertisement space in the guise of news coverage and thus escape the ceiling on expenditure fixed by the Election Commission. It has also been alleged that it is unaccounted money that is deployed to secure paid news. The commission has said that it will strengthen its machinery to tackle the problem. It has also said that there are limitations on its power to take action on many complaints as it can exercise its power only during elections. But there is no discernible progress in cases like those against Ashok Chavan, which are clearly within its purview. There have been proposals that the Representation of People Act should be amended so that the malpractice can be dealt with more effectively. This also deserves urgent consideration.

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