Guidelines to deal with paid news ahead of elections

NEW DELHI: There is some amount of seriousness in tackling the issue of paid news. The Election Commission has issued guidelines to the Chief Electoral Officers of all the states and Union Territories to deal with candidates‘ advertisements on television channels owned by political parties or their functionaries and office bearers during elections. These will come into effect immediately.

The latest guidelines have been issued to bring better uniformity in dealing with such instances even when no consideration of cash and kind is involved in extending campaign publicity to candidates.

The guidelines say that six months before the due date of expiry of Lok Sabha or the State/UT Legislative Assembly, as the case may be, a list of television channels, radio channels and newspapers circulated in the State and Union Territory and their standard rate cards shall be obtained by the CEOs and forwarded to the Commission.

The latest guidelines were issued on 16 August to put in place a mechanism to deal with the problems of ‘paid news‘. The Commission had earlier issued guidelines on 8 June 2010, 23 September 2010, and 18 March 2011 relating to this issue.

The Commission said in a recent press note that it had been receiving various complaints and references regarding ‘paid news‘ and advertisements on TV channels owned by political parties or their functionaries during the process of elections, thus disturbing the level playing field, as these are not reflected in the candidate‘s election expenses account.

The Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) at district and state level will monitor all political advertisements in relation to candidates, either overt or covert, and will intimate the Returning Officer for issue of notices to candidates for inclusion of notional expenditure based on standard rate cards in their election expenses account, even if they actually do not pay any amount to the channel/newspaper. This will also include publicity by or on behalf of candidate by Star Campaigner (s) or others, to impact his electoral prospects. A copy of the notice will also be marked to Election Expenditure Observer.

In case of bye-election to Parliamentary or Assembly constituency, the standard rate card will be obtained by the District Election Officer concerned immediately on announcement of the bye-election and MCMC will take due action immediately afterwards.

Like in the case of paid news, the Chief Electoral Officer and District Election Officers will brief political parties and media houses about the above guidelines before the commencement of the
election campaign.

In case of any technical doubt relating to the application of the standard rate card, the matter would be referred to the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry for advice.

The practice of paid news has to be seen as an attempt to circumvent the provisions of Sections 77 and 123 (6) of Representatives of the Peoples Act 1951 which prescribe accounting and ceiling of election expenses and make exceeding such prescribed limits a corrupt practice in elections.

The Commission has directed that maximum vigilance may be observed by making use of the existing provisions of law so that the incidence of ‘paid news‘ or surrogate advertisements in print and electronic media in the context of elections is arrested.

Legal provisions under Section 127A of the 1951 Act make it mandatory for the publisher of an election advertisement, pamphlet, etc., to print the name and address of the publisher as well as printer and failure to do so attracts penalty of imprisonment up to two years and/or fine of Rs 2000/-. Section 171 H of the IPC prohibits incurring of expenditure on, inter alia, advertisement without the authority of the contesting candidate.

‘Paid news‘ would also fall in the category of ‘other document‘ liable to be included in ‘election pamphlet and poster‘ and action taken accordingly. Hence, an obvious case of news reporting in the print media dedicated/ giving advantage to a particular candidate or the party while ignoring/ causing prejudice to other candidates and parties would require investigation.

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