Absence of a law against paid news emboldens Jharkhand to try and legitimise it

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Published: September 19, 2019 4:20:51 AM

The Election Commission of India (ECI) had called upon the government to amend the Representation of Peoples Act (RPA) to include an election candidate paying for news to get published in the Act’s list of corrupt practices inviting strict penalties, including debarring candidates found guilty

Absence of a law, Jharkhand, Election Commission of India, ECI, RPA, Representation of Peoples ActIn 2013, a parliamentary committee had criticised the Union government for failing to establish a strong mechanism against paid news.

In poll-bound Jharkhand, the BJP-led government seems not to have heard of the many strictures on paid news. Or maybe, it has heard of them, but doesn’t care much. How else can one explain the state publicity department publishing ads inviting applications from journalists to report on government welfare schemes and get paid? The Jharkhand government will pay 30 journalists Rs 15,000 per print/video report on its welfare schemes spread over a month, and has called applications by September 16. Not only does the move throw all notions of electoral propriety out the window, it perhaps even offers some degree of legitimacy to paid news, in the absence of explicit laws banning it.

In 2013, a parliamentary committee had criticised the Union government for failing to establish a strong mechanism against paid news. The Election Commission of India (ECI) had called upon the government to amend the Representation of Peoples Act (RPA) to include an election candidate paying for news to get published in the Act’s list of corrupt practices inviting strict penalties, including debarring candidates found guilty. It had also recommended that abetting and publication of paid news be declared a criminal offence. The Law Commission, in a report in 2015, had also called for a legislative provision against paid news.

ECI currently battles paid news with only Section 10A of RPA (misreporting of funds) and Section 77 (publication of paid news being treated as political advertising) in its arsenal. Court decisions have muddied the waters, with the Delhi High Court stripping down the EC’s power to act against paid news in the Narottam Mishra case, saying that paid news essentially fell “within the domain of free speech”. To be sure, the Supreme Court backed the EC, but in the absence of a concrete law, Jharkhand-like instances will only grow. And, after reaching a certain criticality in public apathy, paid news could even be treated as legal.

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