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Evidence provided by the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists

The Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists (APUWJ), the first union of journalists to raise its voice against paid news and, in fact, the first body to have coined the phrase “paid news”, in its memorandum submitted to the Press Council of India on February 9, 2010, said that “the genesis of paid news started (during the) general elections (of) 2004 when small and local newspapers in mofussil towns and district headquarters in some parts of Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat started this practise in an organised way. These small newspapers owned and edited by the same person assisted by a few others entered into agreements with the local leaders of prominent parties or candidates and started publishing propaganda material of these parties or candidates as news for a fee in the run up to the elections.”

The union observed that during 2009, when the 15th general elections to country and the legislative elections to the state of Andhra Pradesh were held simultaneously, advertising copy appeared as “paid news” along with a credit line of a staffer of a newspaper in order to mislead readers into believing that the article had in fact been written by a reporter of the newspaper. Newspaper managements collected money for “paid news” items according to their advertisement tariffs without acknowledging that these were advertisements.

The APUWJ raised the issue of “paid news” during the campaign for the general elections of 2009 before the Chief Electoral Officer of Andhra Pradesh on April 10, 2009. The union pointed out that “paid news” items were leading to a subversion of the democratic election process as well as the institution of a free press. The union compiled a considerable volume of circumstantial evidence, the highlights of which included the following:

The Andhra Jyothi daily in a tabloid attached to its West Godavari district edition dated April 23, 2009, carried an article on the front party claiming that the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) candidate from Narasapuram Parliamentary constituency, Smt Thota Sitarama Lakshmi, would emerge victorious from the election battle. The article carried a headline claiming that a “huge victory” was awaiting the candidate. The same edition of the newspaper, on its back page, carried a story saying the Congress candidate from the same Narasapuram constituency, Bapi Raju was going to win the seat, with a headline that read “victory, victory”. The union observed that it was indeed unusual that the same paper was endorsing two rival candidates from the same constituency on the same day and alleged that the stories appeared to have been written not the newspaper’s journalists but by the publicists of the candidates.

A similar set of stories appeared the same day, April 23, 2009, in the West Godavari district edition of the Eenadu daily. The newspaper published on its front page an article from Bhimavaram predicting the victory of TDP candidate from Narasapuram, Smt Sitaram Lakshmi. The story carried a headline stating that she was “on her way to victory with a huge majority” On the back page of the same edition of the newspaper the same day, another story was published claiming that Congress candidate Shri Bapi Raju would win. The story’s headline read: “everybody says Bapi Raju will win”.

The APUWJ said that “a common phenomenon” that was witnessed in the run-up to the 2009 elections was newspapers would issue receipts claiming that an amount of Rs 3 per square centimetre was received whereas the actual amounts that were received were much higher.

The union stated that the pernicious practice of “paid news” not only exposed the greed of managements of media companies in their endeavour to maximize their profits but also posed a danger to the independence of the media, the process of elections and democratic institutions. “It is immoral, unethical and unprofessional to publish ‘paid news’…to mislead the reader that (such stories are the product of the) independent and unvarnished observation of professional journalists,” the APUWJ stated, adding that this phenomenon “also raises ethical and legal questions regarding the responsibility of the media towards the people in a democratic society…Those who have money power get publicity and those who have less resources will be left behind and blacked out. At times, those who do not pay money would attract negative reporting… (This is against) the concept of (a) level playing field for all candidates which is essential in an election. In addition, the candidates do not need to show this expenditure in their election expenditure. It leads to violation of election law and encourages the use of black money. Thus the democratic process of elections is subverted.”

The APUWJ made a detailed study of newspapers in the West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh for 27 days between March 28, 2009 and April 23, 2009. The study found that Eenadu published 94 political advertisements and 92 “paid news” stories, while the Andhra Jyothi published 87 political advertisements and 163 paid news stories in this period. Other publications like Sakshi, Vaarta, Andhra Bhoomi and Surya were also found to have carried similar advertisements and “paid news” stories. One particular trend noticed by the union in the newspapers that they perused was the fact that there were a number of reports appearing in the same edition of a newspaper that would simultaneously predict the victory of two or more rival candidates contesting the same constituency. “It is all right for the candidates and their parties to claim victory and the claims can be published as news stories attributing the stories to their party leaders or their spokespersons,” the APUWJ observed, adding: “But the correspondent of the concerned newspaper cannot file two stories on the same day predicting two different candidates winning from the same constituency.”

The Telugu daily Sakshi in its letter to Press Council of India, dated February 10, 2010, on the issue of “paid news” claimed that “we are way off the target while addressing the problem. It is more like ‘barking upon the wrong tree’. As per the Election Commission guidelines, the expenditure limit in major states like Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh is Rs 25 lakh for a Lok Sabha candidate and Rs 10 lakh for an Assembly candidate. In smaller Lok Sabha constituencies like Lakshadweep, the expenditure limit is Rs 10 lakh.

“It is no secret that in the days of inflation and the ever increasing cost of living, Rs 10 lakh expenditure for Assembly candidates is ridiculously low. So is the limit for Lok Sabha constituencies. At the same time we know that Assembly candidates end up spending not less than Rs 2 crore and the figure goes up in case of Lok Sabha candidates. Even the Election Commission knows it pretty well that no candidate would reveal true expenditure nor they spend within the specified limits. In the process, the candidates invented several ways of concealing the expenditure and one of them is paid news.”

Date posted: August 8, 2010Last modified: May 23, 2018Total views: 16