Newswatch | Newswatch

You are here

Preface

The fifteenth general elections to the Lok Sabha took place in April-May 2009 and in order to ensure free and fair coverage by the media, the Press Council of India issued guidelines applicable to both government authorities and the press. After the elections, a disturbing trend was highlighted by sections of the media, that is, payment of money by candidates to representatives of media companies for favourable coverage or the phenomenon popularly known as “paid news”.

The deception or fraud that such “paid news” entails takes place at three levels. The reader of the publication or the viewer of the television programme is deceived into believing that what is essentially an advertisement is in fact, independently produced news content. By not officially declaring the expenditure incurred on planting “paid news” items, the candidate standing for election violates the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, which are meant to be enforced by the Election Commission of India under the Representation of the People Act, 1951. Finally, by not accounting for the money received from candidates, the concerned media company or its representatives are violating the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956 as well as the Income Tax Act, 1961, among other laws.

The phenomenon of “paid news” goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media companies. It has become pervasive, structured and highly organized and in the process, is undermining democracy in India. Large sections of society, including political personalities, those working in the media and others, have already expressed their unhappiness and concern about the pernicious influence of such malpractices.

During his inaugural address at a seminar on “General Elections 2009 and Media Reporting” on May 13, 2009, that was organized by the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists at Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, three days before the results of the fifteenth general elections were declared, Hon’ble Chairman of the Press Council of India Justice G.N. Ray expressed grave concern about the covert emergence of the “paid news” syndrome and this issue was discussed threadbare during the seminar.

Subsequently, representations against such malpractices were received from several veteran journalists (such as the late Shri Prabhash Joshi, Shri Ajit Bhattacharjea, Shri B.G. Verghese and Shri Kuldip Nayar). They alleged that sections of the media had received illegal payments for providing favourable coverage to candidates who had stood for the Lok Sabha elections.

On June 6, 2009, the Press Council of India expressed serious concern over the phenomenon of “paid news” that doubly jeopardized the functioning of an independent media in the country and the working of Indian democracy by influencing free and fair elections. The Council noted that the press provides a service that is akin to a public utility – it exercises its right to inform because the public has a right to know. The press thus functions as a repository of public trust and has the obligation to provide truthful and correct information to the best of its ability when such information is being presented as news content. Such news content is distinct from opinions that are conveyed through articles and editorials in which writers express their views.

There is an urgent need to protect the right of the public to accurate information before voters exercise their franchise in favour of a particular candidate in the electoral fray. An opinion that was expressed in the Council is that one reason for the proliferation of the “paid news” phenomenon could be that on account of the limits on election campaign related expenditure that have been imposed by the Election Commission of India, candidates have chosen this alternative to publicize themselves, in the process posing a danger to the conduct of free and fair elections. It was suggested that the powers that are vested in returning officers appointed by the Election Commission before the elections take place are adequate for such officers to issue notices to the press to explain the basis of particular “news” reports and ascertain whether financial transactions had actually taken place between candidates and representatives of media companies.

The Press Council of India felt that in pursuance of the mandate given to the Council by Parliament, it was incumbent upon this statutory authority to examine the issue in all its dimensions through detailed research and consultations. Such an exercise was deemed necessary to maintain the faith of the public in the media and also make appropriate recommendations to check such malpractices from recurring on a wide scale before the forthcoming rounds of elections at both the Union and state levels.

On June 10, 2009, the Delhi Union of Journalists communicated with the Press Council telegraphically and expressed its concern at reports of money power having played havoc with the media coverage of the elections that had taken place. Shri S.K. Pande, President, Delhi Union of Journalists described the “paid news” phenomenon as unethical, unfair and an infringement of the right of journalists to report freely. He further informed the Council that selected journalists had been targetted by the managements of media companies for not acquiescing with such malpractices.

It may not be out of place in this context to state that the attention of the Press Council of India had been drawn as early as April 2003 by one its members (the late Shri N. Thiagrajan) about the publication of advertising material in the garb of news reports for a fee. At that time, the Council had urged the media to introspect whether such practices enhanced the credibility of news reportage and advised that journalistic propriety demanded that advertisements should be clearly distinguishable from editorial content.

The Press Council of India, through its Chairman and its members, participated in or initiated a number of discussions and debates on this issue between May 2009 and March 2010.

On July 3, 2009, exercising the powers conferred on the Council under Sections 8(1) and 15 of the Press Council of India Act, 1978, a Sub-Committee of the Council comprising two members, namely, Shri Kalimekolan Sreenivas Reddy and Shri Paranjoy Guha Thakurta was constituted. The two members, together with the Press Council of India Chairman Justice G.N. Ray, the Council’s Secretary, Smt Vibha Bhargava and other members, met a wide cross-section of stake-holders in New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad and also perused through many letters and representations that were sent to the Council. These have been listed in Annexures “A” “B” “C” and “D” at the end of the report. Annexure “E” carries the guidelines that were issued by the Press Council for the media and government authorities during elections. The report of the Sub-Committee follows.

Date posted: August 8, 2010Last modified: May 23, 2018Total views: 28