The Menace of Paid News

The Press Council of India defines paid news as “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print & electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration.” Furthermore, it claims that the concept of paid news is a complex phenomenon that has acquired different forms over the last few decades, and includes “accepting gifts on various occasions, foreign and domestic junkets, and various monetary and non-monetary benefits, besides direct payment of money.”

Its origins can be traced back to the 1980s, when the publishers of The Times group started covering commercial events for a price and printed them as advertorials. Increased earnings prompted editors to chase profits instead of printing unbiased and objective news.

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) too, talks about the menace of paid news. According to it, private corporations and news companies enter into ‘treaties’, wherein publicity is exchanged for equity, and news is commercialised. As the ugly side of this practice takes over Indian news media, journalistic integrity is compromised.

A phenomenon unique to our country, our politicians have made plenty use of it; news is often published in favour of a politician or a political party in highly coveted and expensive editorial spaces, at the cost of objective reporting. The 2009 general elections, for instance, saw many news stories, feature reports, and TV broadcasts for politicians and their parties, on a plethora of platforms throughout the country. The payment—made through black money—was never shown as part of the campaigning records of the parties, or in the income of the news corporations.

Over the years, the list of people enjoying their share of boosted news, has grown to include names like the former Ashok Chavan, the former CM of Maharashtra; Narottam Mishra, MP’s state minister, and Umlesh Yadav, a former MLA. While charges against Ashok Chavan were cleared by the Delhi High Court, Narottam Mishra and Umlesh Yadav were found guilty, and subsequently convicted for their actions.

Paid news is not an election offence yet, but clearly has a good reason to be, as candidates found entering into agreements with news companies can only be hauled up for failing to include the expenses involved in their campaign accounts. The Election Commission (EC) has requested the government to amend the ‘Representation of the People Act’, 1951, and make the publishing, or abetting the publishing, of paid news to further a candidate’s prospects or prejudicially affect another’s an electoral offence.

To protect democracy and objective reporting, strict provisions need to exist in the legal system to crack down on perpetrators of paid news and politicians like Ashok Chavan, who get away scot-free due to lack of a concrete law.

The Election Commission needs to be empowered to such cases to a tribunal headed by a serving judge. Moreover, if proved, such an offence should be meted with exemplary punishment. Special fast-track courts can also be introduced to speed up the process in paid news cases.

Media corporations too, should be legally bound to disclose their revenue, its sources, and its linkages with other industries, and various share-holdings in other companies. Editors of media organisations should also be made to disclose their assets voluntarily and periodically.

Apart from these legal measures, the EC also needs to take electoral steps to curb this practice. For instance, the ceiling on election expenditure which presently only includes candidates, should limit the expenses of political parties as well. There also exists a need for independent and transparent monitoring of election campaigns of all political parties for a six-month period. Further, the governments at the Centre and the state should be discouraged from launching their campaigns six months before elections.

The Press Council of India and the Election Commission need to come together to curb this practice, empowered by the judiciary.A collective action by the EC, Press Council of India and other bodies involved, along-with strict enactment of laws is needed to combat paid news, and restore objectivity in journalism.

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