The Election Commission of India (ECI) holds that paid news—news or analysis appearing in any media for a price in cash or kind—“plays a very vitiating role in the context of free and fair elections... (and) involves under-reporting of election expenses” by candidates.
The Election Commission of India (ECI) holds that paid news—news or analysis appearing in any media for a price in cash or kind—“plays a very vitiating role in the context of free and fair elections… (and) involves under-reporting of election expenses” by candidates. It found 42 cases of paid news in the election of BJP’s Narottam Mishra from Datia, Madhya Pradesh (MP), in the 2008 state Assembly elections. Indeed, one particular news item with the same headline and body appeared in three leading Hindi news Delhi immediately before the polls. In 2017, the ECI ordered Mishra’s disqualification and barred him from contesting elections for three years. Given there is no specific law against “paid news”, the poll panel leant on Section 10A of the Representation of Peoples Act (RPA) that deals with the misreporting of funds, arguing that Mishra knew of, and by implication authorised the publication of the “reports” which should be seen as political advertising under Section 77 of the RPA. And, since the expenditure incurred or authorised on this head was not listed in the submissions to the poll regulator, Mishra had “failed to lodge a correct and true account of his election expenses”, necessitating disqualification. However, the Delhi High Court, to which Mishra’s challenge of the ECI order had been transferred, set aside the disqualification in May this year. Going further, the HC said, “The content of a media article, or a news feature or series of features on particular candidates should ordinarily not be regulated indirectly through the directives of the EC; they essentially fall within the domain of free speech”. This essentially restricts the poll regulator from acting against paid news.
With a law against paid news absent, the only protection the electorate has against candidates misleading it has been stripped by the Delhi HC’s order. As per a report in The Indian Express, Madhya Pradesh saw the third highest number of alleged paid news cases among the 22 states in which Assembly elections were held between 2010 and 2013—Punjab and Gujarat has the worst numbers, in that order. The ECI has written to the Union government before, suggesting that paid news be made an electoral offence under the RPA. A Law Commission report from 2015 also recommends amending the RPA to this effect. To be sure, both the UPA and the present NDA government have signalled an intent to act. But, both have approached the problem from a press regulation perspective rather than poll regulation. The UPA brought the Registration of Newspapers and Publications Bill, 2013, while the Modi government was reported to be mulling over a beefed up version of this last year—providing for suspension of publication permits for a period of 45 days for erring publications. However, preserving India’s democratic values depends on cracking down on candidates who mislead the electorate through paid news. With the ECI having approached the Supreme Court against the Delhi HC order, much depends on which way the SC decides—the government and political parties, in the meanwhile, would do well to gather the will to amend the RPA.