The 20th Law Commission under the Chairmanship of Justice Ajit Prakash Singh and its Report No.255 was submitted on 12th March 2015 to the then Union Minister of Law & Justice Mr. Sadananda Gowda. The issue of Paid News and Political Advertising were elaborately evaluated under Chapter VII of the said report. The crux of their observations are reviewed in this paper to explore further scope and expansion of this concept.
After the advent of technology Media has taken a new dimension to penetrate into every segment in our society. It has huge influence over the citizens as its following is massive in both Main Stream and Electronic channels. Social Media too has taken a huge impact on commercialisation of the fourth pillar of our democracy. Media has given lucrative career and employment opportunities to journalists and is considered to be the most robust entity in our democracy. Media is often criticised for its succumbing to the culture of Paid News dictated by money and political power at large. In the absence of a legal framework in the governance of this practice of Paid News phenomena it has become very difficult for the establishment of a proper level playing field in the Electoral battles in our democracy.
CORE ISSUES INVOLVED
Political advertising involves promotion of any electoral candidate or political party or its policies to influence ocal advertising does not exclusively relate to elections, political parties or candidates. Media engages debates engaging panellists belonging to political parties who are freely allowed to promote their ideologies engaging in political propaganda for political interests and thus involved only in the promotional exercises influencing the minds of the citizens. Parties having huge corpus spend money to promote their campaigns engaging media and even resort to false propaganda or fake or unauthentic information related to sensitive subjects related to Economy, Development, Crime,etc. Reports suggest that the Paid News Market involves money to the tune of several hundred crores. Major political parties who have rich corpus at their disposal engage in misleading the electorate in terms of election analysis, winning chances of candidates, support from religious and caste organisations which upsets the fairness of any election exercise. The ceiling for expenditure prescribed by the Election Commission of India for candidates and political parties are often violated or concealed in terms of manipulation of cost of approved entities required for political canvassing. Donations received directly from undisclosed donors by means of cash often slip the radar of the Regulatory authorities. The Accounts of the political entities have never been transparent. Restrictions in terms of Mandatory lodging of accounts by political parties and the prescribed penalties imposed even for illegal payments related to expenses on account of holding public meeting, banners, posters, etc have proved a futile exercise. Hence the present problems related to paid News content identified could never be handled in a regulated framework to contain the paid news and issues related to political advertisement. ECI’s role has always been subject to controversies due to its partisan behaviour and favouritism towards any ruling party in power. It neither had the prescribed manpower resources to handle mandated tasks prescribed by Supreme Court (Pre-certification of political advertisements), Media Certification & Monitoring Committee, media irregularities and corrupt practices. The Comprehensive set of Guidelines and the punishment imposed on account of electoral offences on Paid News prescribed by the ECI vide circular dated August 27, 2012 was also found ineffective to control and monitor the publication of ‘paid news’
PRESENT PROPOSAL TO CURB PAID NEWS & POLITICAL ADVERTISMENT
The following propositions are envisaged to control and curb paid news and political advertising in our country. The present set up of Election Commission of India should be vested with Supreme Independent Powers to regulate the following to curb paid news and political advertisement enacting a suitable law under a separate chapter under the Representation of Peoples’ Act:
- ECI should devise a common format applicable for all candidates uniformly and collect the requisite fees from the candidates directly for publication in an exclusive TV Channel or Newspaper to publish details about candidates. These details should include all Assets and Liabilities including Criminal/Civil cases pending against the candidate and its present stage.
- No other Newspaper or TV Channel except these ECI Media should publish any news item related to Election or its candidates. A blanket ban should be imposed and all electoral related offences should be classified under Offences tried under Criminal Laws.
- Election related debates, discussions, Survey, Forecast, Predictions, Exit Polls, etc should be banned and any violation in this regard should directly amount to disqualification of the candidate. The election process will continue even after this action without the erring candidate.
- All Government related advertisements or publishing achievements of any government in power should be totally banned in the Media during the election period and the Media Houses should be suitably instructed to comply the guidelines strictly.
- Paid News concept can be directly abolished if the Media Channels are imposed with a total ban without infringing the freedom of expression.
- This ECI TV channel should allocate time slots to political parties to directly canvass their candidates and talk about their achievements or exposing all the drawbacks of its opponents. These time slots should be fixed on rotation so that every party gets the advantage of utilizing their Prime Time. The same can be linked to all other News Channels engaging the candidates to express their opinion directly about the content and clarify the same to the views/electorate.
- ECI TV Channel should facilitate all candidates or representatives of any political parties to directly answer to questions live posed by citizens.
- ECI should host pages in every social media and share information or details related to the candidates and political parties on the basis of election affidavits submitted so that every citizen is fully aware of the candidates in fray.
- ECI should be empowered to take action against any political party or candidates if the electorate is subject to undue influence or corruption through “Cast for Votes” and impose a total ban or prohibition not only to political candidates and parties, but also to any advertisement which aims to influence public opinion on a matter of public controversy.
- ECI should take control of all the financial matters related to expenses earmarked for candidates and its political parties. Each and every release of funds in stages should be approved by ECI and end-use verified and report submitted to CEC on daily basis.