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"Paid news" in Parliament

Speaking in the Lok Sabha on March 3, 2010, the then Leader of the Opposition and senior BJP leader Shri L.K. Advani said election campaigns should be publicly funded while expressing concern about the phenomenon of “paid news” which he described as a “very serious issue”. He said publications and television channels should be made to account for the revenue generated from “paid news”.

On March 5, 2010, the Rajya Sabha took up a discussion on “paid news” on the basis of a calling attention motion moved by Shri Sitaram Yechuri of the Communist Party of India –Marxist, in which the Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting Ambika Soni and the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Shri Arun Jaitley of the BJP participated. Here are excerpts from their speeches.

Smt Soni stated: “The government is committed to ensuring the right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under the Constitution of India. In pursuance of this objective of preserving the freedom of press and maintaining and improving the standard of newspapers in India and to inculcate the principles of self-regulation among the press, the Press Council of India, an autonomous body was set up under the Press Council Act, 1978. The Press Council of India has developed norms of journalistic conduct that cover the principles and ethics regarding journalism. The Press Council of India has also laid down guidelines on reporting of specific issues of public and national importance. In 1996, it drew up a set of guidelines that are particularly applicable to financial journalism. The Press Council of India has also issued guidelines on reporting of elections.

“In recent months, however, there have been a number of media reports that sections of the electronic and print media have received monetary considerations for publishing or broadcasting news in favour of particular individuals or organizations or corporate entities, what is essentially ‘advertisements’ disguised as ‘news’. This has been commonly referred to as the ‘paid news syndrome’. While this is not a new phenomenon, it has attracted greater public attention of late, and is being widely discussed and debated across the country. It has been reported that the owners of some media organizations have financial relationships, including share-holdings, with advertisers. Further, cases have been reported wherein identical articles with photographs and headlines have appeared in competing publications carrying bylines of different authors or sometimes even without bylines, around the same lime. On the same page of specific newspapers, articles have been printed during elections, projecting rival candidates, both as winning candidates! While it is widely agreed that it is not easy to find proof for such malpractices, there exists strong circumstantial evidence.

“It is, however, very commendable that this issue of ‘paid news’ has been vigorously raised by some sections of the media itself. The Editors Guild of India has in its press note on this issue dated December 23, 2009, condemned this unethical practice and called upon all editors of the country to desist from publishing any form of advertisements which masquerade as news. They went on to say that it is imperative upon news organizations to clearly distinguish between news and advertisements with full and proper disclosure norms, so that no reader or viewer is tricked by any subterfuge of advertisements published and broadcast in the same format, language and style of news. The Indian Women’s Press Corps, a body of working women journalists from print, television and online media are also highlighting this issue in a seminar…in order to build an opinion against this malpractice. The Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists (APUWJ) conducted a detailed sample survey to highlight the manner in which newspapers had published ‘paid news’ items. A number of senior journalists have formally complained about the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ to the Press Council of
India and the Election Commission of India…. The representatives of APUWJ named six newspapers, carrying numerous paid news stories…

“This phenomenon of ‘paid news’ is therefore, a serious matter as it influences the functioning of a free press. The media acts as a repository of public trust for conveying correct and true information to the people. However, when paid information is presented as news content, it could mislead the public and thereby hamper their judgement to form a correct opinion. Thus, there is no denying the fact that there is an urgent need to protect the right of citizens to correct and unbiased information. It is important that all sections of society should introspect on this issue as it has wide-ranging implications for our democratic structure.

Shri Yechuri stated that “paid news” was “not merely a serious matter influencing the functioning of a free press, but it is an issue that also concerns the future of parliamentary democracy in India”. He added: “The health of our democratic system rests on the inviolable principle of sovereignty being vested with the people. The people’s representatives, through the legislative bodies, exercise vigilance on the government or the executive thereby making it accountable to the people. The sovereignty of the people, therefore, is established through this system and this inviolability is crucially dependent upon unbiased information and the proper news that the people receive. So, the role of the Fourth Estate or the media has always been very crucial in disseminating unbiased information to the people and helps them understand the policies that are involved in governance as also to decide as to who would be capable of effective governance in the country. So, this is an issue that not only affects the media or the Fourth Estate but it also affects the future of parliamentary democracy in our country….providing access to unbiased, unfiltered and objective news or information is the role that media is supposed to play. This comes under very severe strain with the emergence of the ‘paid news’ syndrome.

“The Hon’ble Minister has said that the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ is not a new phenomenon. But it is a completely new phenomenon in terms of the staggering proportion it has reached and the corporatization of media houses has actually led to a situation whereby this sort of paid news is no longer confined to any one print medium or electronic media. There are instances where large media houses not only own print media but also own electronic media and radio waves. These media houses offer packages for the projection of certain individuals in all the forms of media that they own and control. This distorts parliamentary democracy in multiple ways: (a) (the) media ceases to be objective and, therefore, distorts public perception; (b) it distorts the electoral political choices of the people by providing undue advantage to those candidates/political parties who are able to afford these packages, (c) it manipulates democracy, negating it completely by denying or by not providing equal access to those who cannot afford to indulge in such malpractices thereby breaching the provisions of the Constitution of India, and (d) it demeans the idea and essence of journalism itself.

“There are of course well-meaning and good journalists, who have actually played a stellar role in shaping public policy in our country and in guiding political parties into directions that are better for the country and its people. Such journalists have been completely weeded out of this sort of system. In order to protect journalism from getting into this abyss, it is necessary to prevent journalism from being muscled by corporate powers. All the good work done by journalists does not find expression in the print or electronic media mostly, because the choice of what needs to be reported is directed or dictated by the money power that emerges from behind the scene. The Press Council of India, the Editors’ Guild of India and the Vice-President of India, have at least, on three occasions in the recent past, referred to this ugly syndrome of ‘paid news’….

“…vibrant journalism has to be restored. If this has to be restored, the undue influence of money power in journalism has to be eliminated. The Election Commission of India has listed various restrictions to ensure the conduct of free and fair elections. As per the rules of the Election Commission of India, political parties are prohibited either to paint advertisements or to stick posters on walls. Candidates are also prohibited to deliver speeches after 10 pm. However, 24-hour news channels are allowed to broadcast the campaign of a candidate or party all through the night. This is tantamount to distortion of democracy. The syndrome of ‘paid news’, actually, negates India’s system of parliamentary democracy and undermines the very essence of journalism. Corporatization of media houses is leading to such a situation and if not checked immediately, it would completely negate parliamentary democracy in our country. Therefore, … I draw the attention of the Hon’ble Minister and the government that it is not enough to deliver morally sanctimonious lectures. A serious effort needs to be made to ensure probity and accountability on the part of media houses. As per reports, the size of the ‘paid news’ market in Andhra Pradesh in the elections in 2009 alone was over Rs 1,000 crore (this is a very gross underestimation). In Maharashtra, which is the cradle of ‘paid news’, the size of the market has reached a figure of some thousands of crores. It was for this reason that I said on some other occasion that elections in India are the single largest stimulus for the economy.

“Huge amounts of money are being spent on ‘paid news’ and this completely distorts news. I, therefore, suggest that there needs to be accountability on the part of media houses and journalists. I cannot, however, specify how this accountability is to be ensured. But, one method is to institute an enquiry wherever such complaints come up. If it is established that any newspaper or news channel has been indulging in this practice, the government must stop doling out its advertisements in that newspaper or news channel. Unless some deterrents of this sort are thought out, it will not be possible, at least, to control this phenomenon which is a very serious malady affecting our parliamentary democracy. Apart from putting in place such deterrent action, a consciousness against ‘paid news’ needs to be generated in society.”

Shri Jaitley stated: “… I completely share the spirit and substance of what my friend, Shri Yechury, said. I only disagree with him partly on his suggestion of possible solutions. The menace has assumed such large proportions that a solution cannot be to just deny them government advertisements. I have read the statement of the Hon’ble Minister, which is actually based on two premises – first, that this constitutes free speech; second, that the Press Council of India, which I would state is a toothless wonder, is already looking into the matter. And, therefore, both these premises, that the Press Council of India is capable of finding a solution to this, and that this is an expression of free speech, are fundamentally erroneous. If you look at the menace of money power in elections over the last few years, it has grown disproportionately. It is directly linked to the collection of funds for elections by candidates and political parties and by state governments. This leads to increase of political corruption. It pollutes the very stream of administration and public life in this country. The volumes have grown.

“Therefore, if we are to suggest a solution, as Shri Yechury has suggested of not releasing advertisements from governments in those newspapers, the magnitude of the problem, which is so large, is to be kept in mind and the solution suggested has to be proportionate to the problem and the evil that is sought to be curbed. And, what is the problem? The problem is that about a decade ago we noticed that during elections some strange media organizations would ask for money over and above the money paid for advertisements. In the last two years, the phenomenon has grown disproportionately in the sense that there has been the evolution of paid packages which are news packages. Whatever the Hon’ble Minister has highlighted in the statement is all evidence of that. Not only this, political parties and candidates are being compelled to pay to prevent blackout of their campaigns by media houses and to prevent disproportionate coverage to rival candidates.

“This problem also exists, besides elections, in the sphere called business journalism. In fact, one of the outgoing chairpersons of the Securities and Exchange Board of India, in his farewell speech, referred to the existence of the anchor investor. Therefore, this problem, in a different sense, though it cannot be termed as ‘paid news’, also existed in the sphere of business journalism. But, here, we are predominantly concerned with the manner in which the practice is polluting the whole electoral process. Some respectable media organizations, as I witnessed in the last general elections, legitimized this practice. It was legitimized by the former organization of broadcasters, saying to its members that all of you must, now, form a cartel and increase your rates over and above commercial advertising for political advertisement. This was called ‘election premium’. And, when candidates and political parties protested as to why they were being charged more, they were told that they would be compensated by way of live coverage of rallies and of press conferences. Therefore, coverage of rallies and press conferences got linked to those who paid this extra election premium. This is where the problem stands.

“So, the first issue the Hon’ble Information and Broadcasting Minister will have to address: Is this an expression of free speech? Unquestionably, this is not an expression of free speech. Free speech is intended to be a right guaranteed to people to express their views. What seems to pollute the very political system and the electoral system is that we all came up with a conservative notion that news must be fair and views are free. There is freedom to express your views, but as far as news coverage is concerned, it is sacred. Whatever the newspapers write and the television channels broadcast is secondary. The primary rights of free speech belong to a viewer or a reader. It is the right to knowledge; it is a right to information. He is entitled to unadulterated information, as far as news is concerned.

“Today, ‘paid news’ is passed on to the viewer/reader without even mentioning that this is just another form of ‘advertisement’ and is nothing more than propaganda; and if the gullible viewer or reader is asked to absolve that, that affects the human mind. When we grow in terms of economy, let us not forget that while industries can shape the economy of the country, media will shape the human mind. Therefore those who are in a position to pay more for this adulterated information are shaping the human minds in this country accordingly. No student of constitutional law will ever tell you that ‘paid news’ is free speech. At best, it could be trade, it could be business, and, therefore, the government has to take this out of the arena of free speech and put it in the arena of business or trade, all in public interest, rather than leaving it in the hands of the toothless wonder called the Press Council of India.

“Therefore, if the government has a will to stand up and find a solution, it would be possible to find solutions. Once ‘paid news’ is sent to the arena of business, it would be clear to establish that it is nothing more than trade and that too a trade with an unlawful objective. It is unlawful because there is violation of the Income Tax Act. You are taking money in a colour which is not permitted. You are inciting people and involving people by wholesale violation of electoral laws. You are subverting one of the basic features of India’s Constitution which is the conduct of free and fair elections, and, therefore, the entire exercise that is being done is a complete corruption of the electoral process and is a trade or a business with an unlawful purpose.

“Therefore, does the government of the day have the ability to stand up and say that this business or trade which threatens Indian democracy is going to be prohibited or not prohibited? When market malpractices come up in terms of business, you have anti-trust law, you have market regulators to try and stop this. The kind of evidence that the minister has given in the statement itself saying that a simple solution, a remedy is possible, and I am requesting the Hon’ble Minister; and that is going to be my query. Once it gets into the area of unlawful trade or trade with an unlawful purpose, you prohibit it through legislation, you create a regulator. A regulator must be a judicial authority and therefore the easiest thing to do is: (once) the Election Commissioner, on receipt of a report from the Returning Officer or even otherwise from any other person, (is) … satisfied that there is some case made out, (he) refers it to the tribunal headed by a judge. Then, the candidate concerned, the political party concerned, the media organization concerned, must face that.

“The world over, regulators have now started a new system. Prosecutions take years and years and nobody is scared of them and so the regulators hear these matters and deterrent penalties are imposed. Look at the competition law. If somebody is accused of cartelization, the penalty will be ten times the volume of business. So, it may be Rs 50 crore or Rs 100 crore. In the case of media organizations, you need not be so harsh; it could be lesser. But certainly, it has to be a deterrent penalty. In the case of (a) candidate, it has to be an offence under election laws of the world…. (The phrase) ‘corrupt practice’ must be amended in the Representation of the People Act and this should be a ground for setting aside the election and disqualifying the candidate and if parties indulge in this…there must be action against this. My question therefore to the Hon’ble Minister is, (whether) the government is willing to accept (the) position that this is a trade and business with an unlawful purpose which has started…It threatens Indian democracy. Are you merely going to ask the Press Council to look into this matter or are you going to take some precipitate action as far as this is concerned?”

Date posted: August 8, 2010Last modified: May 12, 2018Total views: 2