EC can act on paid news PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 November 2018 04:07
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Supreme Court does well to stay Delhi High Court verdict on this


In the absence of a law against paid news, it was always difficult to take action against politicians who paid newspapers to write stories in their favour in the run-up to an election; and since these advertisements were disguised as a news story, it carried even more credibility. In the 2008 assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, the Election Commission (EC) found 42 cases of paid news in the election of the BJP’s Narottam Mishra from Datia. And, according to a report in The Indian Express, Madhya Pradesh saw the third highest number of alleged paid news cases amongst the 22 states in which Assembly elections were held between 2010 and 2013; Punjab and Gujarat were the worst.

Since, as the EC pointed out, paid news vitiates the concept of free and fair elections, it found a way around the lack of a specific law on paid news and, in 2017, disqualified Mishra and barred him from contesting elections for three years by using Section 10A of the Representation of Peoples Act (RPA) that deals with the misreporting of funds. It said the reports had to be treated as advertisements and, since the expenditure incurred was not reported, Mishra had broken the law in the sense of not reporting his expenditures correctly, and so needed to be disqualified.

This disqualification order, however, was set aside by the Delhi High Court which argued that the news stories/features could not be regulated by the EC since they fell under the “domain of free speech”. While that put paid to the EC’s attempt to tackle the paid news menace, it filed an appeal in the SC against the Delhi High Court ruling arguing that motivated propaganda by politicians couldn’t possibly be considered as part of free speech. While the SC will hear the case, it has, for now, stayed the Delhi High Court verdict, which leaves the EC free to take up such cases of paid news in both the forthcoming assembly elections as well as the general elections in May next year. It is not clear if, by then, the Centre will have come out with an amendment making paid news an electoral offence under the Representation of People’s Act as has been requested by the EC; a Law Commission report in 2015 had also recommended the same. It is only when the law is unambiguous that such practices will stop, and newspapers that indulge in such practices will be both named and shamed.



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