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Shri Jagdeep S. Chhokar, former Dean of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and one of the founders of the non-governmental organisation, Association of Democratic Reforms, whose initiative National Election Watch, puts out information on declared assets as well as criminal records of contesting candidates on its web site has suggested the following measures that can be undertaken to ensure greater accountability in the conduct of elections that could curb the phenomenon of “paid news”.

Writing in the Indian Express (February 1, 2010), Shri Chhokar stated: “…the first and foremost body that is responsible for taking action is the Election Commission, primarily because it is responsible for superintendence, direction and control of elections under the Constitution. The seemingly absolute and sweeping power should, theoretically, enable the EC to do whatever it thinks necessary in the interest of free and fair elections, in practice this power is circumscribed, as it should be, in a democracy by interpretations of the constitution by the judiciary. The Supreme Court, has in several cases, overruled some of the progressive actions of the EC, specifically in the context of its power to register political parties.”

Shri Chhokar added that the responsibility then lies on the judiciary, “which despite its 1974 ruling that expenditure incurred by friends and supporters directly in connection with the election of the candidate should be considered as expenditures incurred by the candidate, found it overruled by Parliament which nullified the judgement”. “Data for the 2009 elections shows that only four out of 6,753 candidates exceeded the prescribed limit of election expenses. The average expenditure was between Rs 12.5 lakh and Rs 13.75 lakh against the limit of Rs 25 lakh!”

Shri Chhokar stated that eventually, “it is the media and the political parties who have to put their house in order.” He also added that “a call for tapping into one’s own conscience may be a tall order in the times of increasing scepticism and commercialisation, but perhaps not entirely misplaced.”

Dr N. Bhaskara Rao, head of the Centre for Media Studies, told the Press Council of India that a multi-pronged approach was required to deal with the problem of “paid news”. Such an approach included elements of self-regulation (such as ensuring that proper disclosure norms were maintained), redressal arrangements and a proactive involvement of civil society organizations and professional bodies (like the Editors’ Guild of India, associations of journalists) and statutory organizations like the Press Council of India, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and the Election Commission of India. In addition, awareness campaigns, conferences, workshops and seminars should be organized to raise awareness about such malpractices, to sensitize employees of media companies and also to counsel journalists. The cancer is deep and the issues need to addressed in a holistic manner, Dr Bhaskara Rao stated.

Dr Y.C. Halan, member, Press Council of India representing the Editors’ Guild of India, pointed out that the media in India has become a strong force and that “it is impossible to dictate it by passing legislation”. He stated that “journalists cannot be associated with the work of controlling the media during elections” and that “any journalist who accepts to do that will lose his credibility”. He suggested that the Union Information & Broadcasting Minister convene a round-table of prominent newspaper owners, editors, representatives of the Press Council of India, the Election Commission of India and political parties to deliberate on the issue and reach to an acceptable and workable solution. Dr Halan further suggested that newspapers and television channels should accept “self control” in the way they have agreed to do while reporting matters relating to national security and terrorism. He said the Council should try and shape public opinion against the “paid news” phenomenon. Just as the Securities and Exchange Board of India and certain banks had introduced campaigns to create financial literacy among investors and preventing them from getting defrauded, the Press Council of India could persuade particular publications, political leaders and journalists to become part of such an awareness-generating programme.

Shri Kalyan Barooah and Shri M.K. Ajith, Press Council of India members and representatives of Press Association, New Delhi, made a number of valuable suggestions to fine-tune the sub-committee’s recommendations.

Shri S.N. Sinha, member, Press Council, argued that the Working Journalists Act needed to be strengthened to improve working conditions and conditions of job security for journalists and that the contract system should be done away with. He has also called for the restoration of the autonomy and the primacy of the editor as the sole decision-maker in selecting news. In a communication to the sub-committee, Shri Sinha suggested that the Election Commission should expeditiously scrutinise all complaints received by it of incidents and occurrences of “paid news” and transfer to the Press Council all cases in which a prima facie case of offence is made out. He further suggested that the Press Council be empowered to adjudicate all such cases and be conferred the power to impose penalties, including the suspension of publication/broadcasting by errant media companies up to one year. The Council, he has suggested, should be entrusted the task of sending copies of its judgements to the Election Commission for appropriate action against the candidate or the political party concerned. He has further argued that the Press Council should be converted into a “Media Council” with adequate powers to oversee and regulate the working of the electronic media along with the print medium.

Date posted: August 8, 2010Last modified: May 23, 2018Total views: 71