Media comes under attack from CEC and Law Minister on regulation and paid news

NEW DELHI: The media came under attack on issues of paid news and regulation at different forums in the capital over the weekend.

Chief election commissioner (CEC) VS Sampath suggested that paid news should be made an electoral offence that attracts disqualification so that it acts as a deterrent, regretting that inadequacies in legal framework were not allowing the poll panel to effectively check this and other malpractices.

He also said that there is a ‘crying need’ for a ‘well defined legislation’ governing expenditure of political parties during elections as its absence was allowing them and their candidates to circumvent the rules.

Speaking at a session organised by the Law Commission, Sampath reckoned, “When the Election Commission looked into whether it had the powers to deal with paid news it found the answer was negative.”

He also added that paid news in whatever form is presently not even an electoral offence. “If it is an electoral offence, it can eventually lead to the disqualification of the candidate. Whatever the difficulties of implementation, the very fact that if it is listed as electoral offence, it would act as a deterrent against people using it in the elections,” he further explained.

The CEC revealed that a recommendation in this regard has been made to the Law Ministry.

He also asked why government advertisements during elections should not be considered as paid news. “Since paid news is not an electoral offence, the Commission now tries to check this menace by invoking its powers related to candidates’ spending,” he added.

“When they (candidates) file their expenditure returns, they always build a cushion for this. If Rs 40 lakh those days was the limit, invariably no candidate would file a return for more than Rs 25 lakh. That Rs 15 lakh will be the cushion for this,” Sampath stated.

Sampath also revealed that while the Commission’s control over a candidate’s spending is only after he files his nomination, people make substantial election related expenses before that.

He added that people start spending but the Election Commission is constrained ‘because of the law and the interpretation of the law.’

The law states that EC can hold an election within the period of six months before the due date.  “We have been making proposals on so many occasions. Why should not the Commission have powers to ensure the purity of the election during this six-month period?” the CEC questioned.

He noted that all limits for poll expenditure is for candidates and none for political parties.

“We have seen political parties handling huge amounts of cash. We have seen political parties giving to the candidates’ huge amounts of cash. When it is caught they will say no, no it is not meant for him, it is meant for him to distribute to others in his district or in his state.

“There is no regulatory framework governing these things.  There is a crying need for a well defined legislation governing political parties particularly political parties’ finance,” Sampath reckoned.

The Commission had recently tried to come out with some transparency guidelines. He said in countries like the US, expenditure commissions only take care of the expenditure and how political parties raise finance.  He also called for a ‘well defined law’ relating to opinion polls conducted by TV channels.

“There should be a well defined law regulating opinion polls also,” Sampath said, adding that there is a view that voters will not be swayed by opinion polls but added that that there were instances where candidates won by wafer thin margins. Later, he was asked why during elections when polling was on in one area, poll related news from other areas continued to be shown on electronic media or internet.

Sampath also explained that there is a mismatch between law and electronic revolution. “On every poll day during this Lok Sabha election, this violation has taken place. It is because of mismatch between law and electronic revolution in the country. All our laws did not take in to account electronic revolution,” he said, adding that EC has to abide by the law as it exists.

At another session, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said those in politics and government should recognise the right of the Press to ‘criticise, lampoon us.’

Delivering the inaugural address at the National Consultation in Media Law organised by the Law Commission of India with the National Law University, Delhi, Prasad said the leaders in his government, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, were those who fought for press freedom during the Emergency.

Noting that the Indian media has matured during the comparatively short span of its existence, he spoke of his early years as a panellist on TV. “Earlier we used to outshout each other. Anchors spoke more, some still do it. But the process of maturing has started,” he said.

“But if media freedom is necessary and important for the media, self-regulation must be the mode,” he added.

“Paid news is sickening. Politicians have to realise that Indian voters are mature and cannot be swayed by aggressive promises alone,” Prasad stated.

He said press freedom should be equally balanced with right to privacy, so also the right of the media should not hinder the freedom to conduct a fair trial.

“My government recognises the importance of social media. We have no intention to curb this flowering of creativity. But there are reasonable restrictions prescribed under the Constitution, which will be used only in extreme, rare circumstances and with the complete approval of the higher authorities, that too only in serious issues threatening our national or communal framework,” the Minister explained.

Speaking at a panel discussion on the topic media regulations, Kasturi and Sons Ltd Chairman (publishers of The Hindu) N Ram opined, “There was hardly any self-regulation for the Press today. He claimed that his newspaper had introduced the idea of a full-time news ombudsman independent of the editor. He said this practice however had not spread to other newspapers, and TV certainly did not have it.”

He also added how even the Press Council of India was dominated by people from the newspaper industry and that an independent mechanism, which was also transparent, was crucial for self-regulation.

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