Approving curbs on “politically motivated” advertisements in the media by governments and leaders issued using public funds, the Supreme Court Wednesday set up a panel to frame comprehensive guidelines to help end the abuse of public ads for political mileage.
A bench led by Chief Justice P Sathasivam constituted a three-member committee to study best practices around the world and submit recommendations to the court in three months.
Based on these recommendations, the SC will issue “substantive guidelines” to be followed by the central and state governments and their agencies such as the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) and information departments in states.
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Rejecting the Centre’s opposition to directions being issued in view of the existence of regulatory agencies such as DAVP, the bench noted that “the existing DAVP policy/ guidelines do not govern the issues raised in these writ petitions and do not lay down any criteria for the advertisements to qualify for ‘public purpose’ as opposed to partisan ends and political mileage”.
The bench, also comprising Justices Ranjan Gogoi and N V Ramana, underlined that there was a need for substantive guidelines to be issued by the court until the legislature enacts a law on the subject, which the bench said was “sensational and significant”.
The court-appointed committee includes Prof N R Madhava Menon, former director, National Judicial Academy, Bhopal; T K Viswanathan, former secretary-general of Lok Sabha, and senior advocate Ranjit Kumar.
The bench was hearing PILs by NGOs Common Cause and CPIL. The NGOs, through their counsel Meera Bhatia and Prashant Bhushan, had highlighted numerous full-page advertisements in newspapers and repeated ads on TV by the central and state governments and their agencies, which projected political personalities and proclaimed the achievements of the ruling party at the expense of the public exchequer. The ad campaigns cited by the NGOs included the ‘India shining’ campaign of the NDA government trumpeting its achievements and the media campaign of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on completion of her terms in office.
The Centre said that public ads were a must for disseminating information regarding government programmes and initiatives and that DAVP guidelines were good enough to deal with the issue.
The bench agreed with the Centre that such ads were a mode of the communication with the people by the government, but pointed out various advertisements that did not disclose any information but only glorified a particular government.
“While the boundary lines can blur, we need to distinguish between the advertisements that are part of government messaging and daily business and advertisements that are politically motivated. It is yet further pleaded that even the Election Commission of India though had expressed concern but could not do anything owing to lack of jurisdiction in the matter,” it noted.
The bench noted that several countries such as Australia and Canada developed guidelines to prevent abuse of public money by way of such advertisements and mandated the committee to study these to come up with the best possible set of guidelines in the Indian scenario.
The court will take up the matter after three months when the committee submits its report.