Repeated publication of propaganda lauding the achievements of a candidate in an election is nothing but “paid news”, the Election Commission of India has told the Supreme Court.
The EC has asked the court to declare whether it amounts to “paid news” if widely circulated daily newspapers cover statements issued by, and in the name of, a candidate.
Such news is not only laudatory of his or her record and achievements but also are a direct appeal to voters by the candidate. Therefore, politicians cannot say that it is part of their fundamental right to free speech to spew out “motivated propaganda”.
If such motivated propaganda is allowed in the name of free speech during the election period, candidates with a strong network of connections will exploit their sphere of influence in society. This will have the unequal advantage of encashing such silent services.
The commission has moved the court in appeal against a decision of the Delhi High Court to set aside the disqualification of an MP in Madhya Pradesh.
ECI’s National Level Committee on Paid News found that five newspapers, with a wide circulation, had published 42 news items that were biased and one-sided and aimed at furthering the prospects of the leader. Some of the reports were advertisements in favor of him. The committee concluded that the items fitted the definition of “paid news”.
Delhi HC order and why was it challenged?
The Delhi HC order had not only overturned the EC’s order on the disqualification, but it also stated that the Commission’s remit is limited to election expenditure incurred by candidates and not content of speech. While the EC does not usually move court on its own, this was seen as a fit case as it was felt that the Delhi HC order had dealt a major blow to the fight against paid news. It was also felt that unless the legal position on the issue was corrected, the EC’s role and power to check paid news in elections will be irreparably undermined. Legal advice is taken also weighed in favor of moving the Supreme Court.
Over 600 paid news complaints were forwarded by EC to Press Council of India with reference to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the government had informed Parliament. EC has repeatedly been asking the law ministry to treat paid news as a cognizable offense and the 2015 Law Commission reports call for amendments in laws to check the menace. The UPA government had also set up a Group of ministers to examine the issue.
Need of the hour:
The ECI has written to the Union government before, suggesting that paid news be made an electoral offense under the RPA. A Law Commission report from 2015 also recommends amending the RPA to this effect.