According to the Press Council’s report, paid news is “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print & electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration”.
It has acquired different forms over the last six decades, from accepting gifts on various occasions, various monetary and non-monetary benefits, besides direct payment of money.
The Election Commission of India has detected hundreds of cases where politicians paid newspapers or TV channels to carry favourable reports.
Manifestations of paid news are:
Advertisements camouflaged as news,
Denial of coverage to select electoral candidates,
exchanging of advertisement space for equity stakes between media houses and corporate.
The EC feels that paid news, as defined by the Press Council, “plays a very vitiating role in the context of free and fair elections” since electors attach greater values and trust news reports more compared to clearly specified advertisements. “Paid news is masquerading as news and publishes advertisements in the garb of news items, totally misleading the electors. To make matters worse, the whole exercise involves use of unaccounted money and under reporting of election expenses in the accounts of election expenses of the candidate.”
To deal with the issue of ‘Paid News’, a mechanism has been laid out with three tier of Media certification and Monitoring Committees (MCMC) at District, State and ECI level.
The Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology presented its 47th report on the “Issues Related to Paid News”. These could be seen in detail as follows:
Definition of ‘paid news’
The Committee acknowledged challenges in defining and determining what constitutes or qualifies as ‘paid news’.
Reasons for rise in paid news
Corporations of media, desegregation of ownership and editorial roles, and decline in autonomy of editors/journalists due to emergence of contract system and poor wage levels of journalists are key reasons for the rise in the incidence of paid news.
Companies with political affiliations entering into private treaties with media houses.
Ineffective penal provisions, as paid news is still not an electoral offence under RPA, 1951.
Poor regulatory oversight due to inadequacy of self-regulatory bodies like National Broadcasting
Standards Authority and Broadcasting Content Complaints Council.
There is an inherent conflict of Interest with appointment of media-owners as members of the Press Council of India or self-regulatory bodies.
Need for regulatory overhaul
The Committee recommended establishment of either a single regulatory body for both print and electronic media or enhancing punitive powers of the PCI and setting-up a similar statutory body for the electronic media.
Such regulator(s) should have the power to take strong action against offenders and should not include media owners/interested parties as members.
Inaction by the government
The Committee accused the government of dithering on important policy initiatives, citing the lack of action on various recommendations of the Press Council of India and Election Commission of India (ECI).
The ECI has made a reference to the Ministry of Law and Justice to amend the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (RP Act) in order to include indulgence of an electoral candidate in paid news as a corrupt practice. It also recommended inclusion of abetting and publishing of such paid news as an electoral offence with minimum punishment of two years’ imprisonment.
Penal provisions and jurisdiction
The Committee observed that existing penal provisions have not served as an effective deterrent for the practice of paid news and stricter penal provisions are needed.
The Committee recommended that the ECI should have the authority to take punitive action against electoral candidates in cases of paid news.
Concentration of media ownership
The Committee expressed concern that the lack of restriction on ownership across media segments (print, TV or internet) could give rise to monopolistic practices. It urged the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to take conclusive action on those recommendations on a priority basis.
Distribution of government advertisements
Various stakeholders alleged that the government uses advertisements to arm-twist media houses for favourable coverage.
Adoption of international best practices
The Committee expressed concern that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and self regulatory bodies have not conducted any study to evaluate the mechanism adopted by other countries to tackle the problem of paid news.
Is paid news an electoral offense?
Paid news is not an electoral offence yet, but there is a case to make it one.
However, the Election Commission (EC) has recommended that the Representation of the People Act, 1951, be amended to make the publishing or abetting the publishing, of paid news to further a candidate’s prospects or prejudicially affect another’s an electoral offence.
Negatives of paid news:
Affects people’s thinking and opinion:
This kind of news has been considered a serious malpractice since it deceives the citizens, not letting them know that the news is, in fact an advertisement and affecting people’ s rational thinking and opinion.
Display of money power:
The payment modes usually violate tax laws and election spending laws. It displays the role of money in elections.
Hits the bottom of democracy:
Such news play a significant role in influencing voting tendency of voters as the viewer does not get a correct picture of the personality or performance of the candidate in whose favour or against he decides to cast his vote. This destroys the very essence of the democracy.
Affects free and fair elections:
Such practices interfere with free and fair elections in the country by violating democratic principle enshrined in our constitution.
Curbs the faith of people in media:
Media is described as the fourth pillar of democracy. Such incidents bring down the faith of people in democratic institutions by conveying incorrect and false information to the people.
Election Commission Guidelines to Curb Paid News
All state Chief Electoral Officers will have to obtain a list of all TV and radio channels and newspapers in the state as well as their standard advertisement rate cards six months before the term of the Lok Sabha or the State Legislative Assembly expires.
Setting up of Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) at district and state level which will have to monitor all political advertisements in relation to candidates.
The committee will intimate the Returning Officer for issue of notices to candidates for inclusion of notional expenditure based on standard rate cards in their election expenses account, “even if they actually do not pay any amount to the channel/newspaper, that is otherwise the case with paid news.”
The expenditure will also include publicity for a candidate by a “star campaigner” or others, to impact his electoral prospects.
Challenges in dealing with paid news
There is circumstantial evidence, but little proof. Establishing transaction of cash or kind is indeed not very easy, as it is usually done without any record and promptly denied by both sides, when enquired. Identifying the cases is a herculean task.
Media violations, surrogate advertisement and unreported advertisements are often mistaken as Paid News sometimes in true cases.
It is difficult to identify and solve the cases in a set time limit. The cases keep on pending for a long period of time before the courts.
The independence of the media and its ability to bring about transparency in society by playing an adversarial role against the establishment get compromised because of corruption within the folds of the media itself and it is usually difficult to fix the accountability in such cases.
Preserving India’s democratic values depends on cracking down on candidates who mislead the electorate through paid news.
Define what constitutes paid political news, so that Press Council of India can adopt appropriate guidelines.
To curb such incidents in future, it is necessary to make ‘paid News’ an electoral offence through amendment of Representation of the People Act, 1951.
The expenditure ceilings prescribed by Election Commission should be strictly adhered to by political parties and candidates.
The people should be sensitized by creating awareness among them and seeking partnership with all stakeholders, including political parties and media.
Regulator(s) should have the power to take strong action against offenders and should not include media owners/interested parties as members.
Naming and shaming of media houses involved in paid news.
In India, a more alert citizenry can make a difference by bringing the problem of paid news to the public domain.
The media acts as a repository of public trust for conveying correct and true information to the people. The “paid news” is therefore, a serious matter as it influences the functioning of a free press. There is an urgent need to protect the right of the public to accurate information before voters exercise their franchise when such incidents are on rise.
Hence, a legal framework in which electoral issues are expeditiously adjudicated must be put in place if election laws are to be enforced in both letter and spirit.