Politicians, media and ‘paid news’: The case of BJP’s Narottam Mishra

Why did the EC bar a Madhya Pradesh Minister from voting in the presidential poll, and from contesting elections himself? What is the law on ads pretending to be news? The Indian Express tells the story

Written by Milind Ghatwai | Updated: July 18, 2017 4:38:23 pm
Narottam Mishra, Narottam Mishra disqualified, election commission, paid news, 2008 assembly elections, madhya pradesh minister, shivraj singh chouhan, Narottam Mishra corrupt, indian express Madhya Pradesh Minister Narottam Mishra

Madhya Pradesh Cabinet Minister Narottam Mishra was not among those who voted in Monday’s election for the President of India. In normal course, Legislative Affairs Minister Mishra might have been expected to be busy marshalling BJP MLAs, reminding the younger members of the nuances of the vote. Since his June 23 disqualification for misrepresenting his 2008 election expenses, along with allegations of “paid news”, the 57-year-old has explored every legal option to be able to vote. On Sunday, a division Bench of Delhi High Court finally brought the hammer down on his efforts, refusing to grant him interim relief. The Election Commission has disqualified Mishra for three years, during which he will not be able to contest any election.

What is the case against Narottam Mishra?

After his defeat to Mishra at the Datia seat in the 2008 MP Assembly elections, Congress leader Rajendra Bharti (who was then with the BSP) went to the Election Commission, alleging that Mishra had submitted incorrect poll expenses, and sought his disqualification under Section 10A of the Representation of the People Act. Bharti alleged that Mishra had spent more than Rs 13.5 lakh on the election, and not the mere Rs 2.4 lakh that he had reported. Money spent on public meetings and rallies, printing folders, and purchasing a vehicle was not included, the complaint alleged. The total expenses were more than the Rs 10-lakh limit, Bharti said.

What was the allegation about paid news?

It was a part of the complaint, and the EC dealt with it at length. The complainant submitted copies of 42 suspicious news items that had appeared in five Hindi newspapers between November 8 and 27, 2008, and said they carried Mishra’s pictures and were heavily biased in his favour. The complainant submitted the rate cards for advertisements in these newspapers, and argued that had the “paid news” items been labeled as ads, Mishra would have had to pay more than Rs 6 lakh for their publication. The news items appeared in the local editions of Nai Dunia (Gwalior), Dainik Bhaskar (Gwalior), Danik Datia Prakash, Aacharan (Gwalior) and BPN Times.

What was Mishra’s defence?

He said no money was paid, and the allegation had no basis. An allegation of “paid news” can stand only if there is payment of money, his counsel argued. The newspapers too said they did not receive any money. At one point, it was argued on Mishra’s behalf that newspapers could have sourced the said items from a news agency such as PTI, which is why they appeared similarly worded. This contention was dismissed on the ground that the said items had not credited a news agency. Mishra also argued that he had since won another election in 2013, and punishing him for an irregularity, if one existed, from 2008, would be tantamount to insulting voters who voted for him in 2013.

How did EC decide it was a case of “paid news”?

After the District Election Officer sent his reply in July 2012, enclosing responses from newspapers, the EC called a meeting of its National Level Committee on Paid News to examine the 42 suspected cases. The eight-member Committee, which met on September 5 and September 12, 2012, concluded that the news items carried information only about Mishra, and favoured him heavily. They included features and appeals that read more like election ads for the candidate than a news report. The reports did not have the reporter’s byline, and carried slugs such as “Bhaskar Impact” or “Election Special Series” or “Impact Feature”. The Committee observed that they read like surrogate ads, and were fit to be included under the existing definition of “Paid News”, i.e., “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print or electronic) for a price in cash or consideration”, as given by the Press Council of India. Some items contained direct appeals by Mishra, such as, “I, Narottam Mishra, appeal to you…” The panel said that irrespective of whether the alleged expenditure breached the permissible limit, the respondent had not only knowingly submitted a false account of expenses, but had also tried to circumvent the legally prescribed limit.

What did the newspapers say?

In their responses to the notices served by the Datia Election Officer, the newspapers insisted they had not received any money, and there was no “paid news”. In its final report on June 23, 2017, the EC did not say anything against the newspapers, but expressed concern “about the menace of paid news that has assumed alarming proportions in the electoral landscape”. “This phenomenon”, the EC said, “has been growing increasingly vicious and spreading like cancer. It’s a grave electoral malpractice which circumvents election expenditure limits, disturbs the level playing field and militates against the voter’s right to accurate information…” The public, the EC said, gives more credence to news than to ads, and publication of ads in the garb of news amounts to deceiving the electorate.

What happens next?

Delhi HC on Sunday did not provide Mishra interim relief, but admitted the petition challenging his disqualification over alleged paid news. The matter will be heard on August 28. The BJP has backed Mishra, and suggested that he can continue as Minister for six months. The Congress has insisted he must go.

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