The Election Commission of India found 42 cases of “paid news” that contributed to Narottam Mishra’s victory in the 2008 Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh. But there is no law to proscribe or regulate what the Commission called “the menace of paid news” in the country. In the absence of specific laws, the EC decided that Mishra had misrepresented his campaign expenses, and was disqualified on those grounds.
So what is ‘paid news’? The Election Commission has accepted a definition that the Press Council of India came up with in 2010. 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 was a “complex phenomenon” that had “acquired different forms over the last six decades”, the Council said, ranging from “accepting gifts on various occasions, foreign and domestic junkets, various monetary and non-monetary benefits, besides direct payment of money”. It mentioned that private treaties signed between media companies and corporate entities could also be part of the phenomenon.
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 underreporting of election expenses in the accounts of election expenses of the candidate…”
Of the 22 states in which Assembly elections were held between 2010 and 2013, Madhya Pradesh was in the top three for the highest number of cases of alleged paid news. 279 notices were issued in the state in 2013, and 165 were confirmed, as per EC data from 2014. States with larger numbers of cases of alleged paid news were Punjab and Gujarat, both of which voted in 2012. In Punjab, 339 notices were issued; 523 cases were confirmed. In Gujarat 495 notices were issued; 414 cases confirmed.
In February 2011, the EC wrote to the Law Ministry proposing to amend the Representation of the People Act, 1951, (RPA) to include “paid news” in electoral offences with a minimum two-year jail term for publishing or abetting the publishing of paid news.
The EC’s views found resonance in the report of the Law Commission of India on electoral reforms, which was submitted in March 2015. The report recommended that RPA should be amended to regulate paid news and political advertisements. It stated that definitions of “paying for news”, “receiving payment for news” and “political advertisement” should be included in the section of the RPA which includes disqualification of a candidate convicted of the mentioned offences. The offence of “paying for news” or “receiving payment for news” in a newly inserted section in the RPA, the Commission said, would make it penal, and “stringent punishment will ensure that if the candidates themselves are found guilty…”.
It has also been argued, however, that the identification and penalisation of “paid news” is a slippery slope and can, under certain circumstances, be used to muzzle genuine political analyses in the media.