Even as Dainik Jagran finds itself in a soup for publishing exit polls after the first phase of the Uttar Pradesh elections, the media in Punjab is in the spotlight for what should be an even murkier controversy.
In the recently-concluded Assembly elections, the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), Punjab flagged an alarming 80 cases of paid news, according to Additional Chief Electoral Officer of Punjab, C Sibin. “We have 103 number of cases in which notices were issued,” Sibin told Newslaundry. “Out of 103, 80 cases are of paid news,” he said. These cases of paid news include news items in both print and broadcast media, Sibin added.
The ECI has a set of guidelines (page 92) based on which it is decided whether a report can be adjudged as paid news.
Paid news, as defined by the Press Council of India (PCI) and accepted by the Election Commission of India (ECI), is “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print & electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration”. According to ECI directions, district and state level Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) “scrutinise all newspapers and electronic media, in order to locate political advertisement in the garb of news coverage and take necessary action against the concerned candidates”.
According to data available on the website of CEO, Punjab, candidates from all three major parties in the fray in this election – the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), Indian National Congress (INC) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – had cases of paid news registered against them. Notably, CEO, Punjab issued a notice to Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal for having paid for a news item that appeared in a Hindi newspaper (the name of the publication was not specified) on January 26.
Clipping of paid news about Parkash Singh Badal from EC website
A complaint was also filed against deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal for an article that appeared in Punjabi daily Ajit on January 17. However, “the complaint against the deputy CM was declared unpaid news,” Sibin said.
In all, CEO, Punjab has taken cognisance of 15 cases of paid news against SAD candidates, with Mansa-hopeful Jagdeep Singh Nakai leading the pack with five separate cases.
SAD’s coalition partner, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has four cases of paid news against its candidates, while Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has one.
Newcomer AAP, fighting the election on an anti-corruption plank, has 18 instances of paid news against its candidates. Sukhwinder Singh Bhola Mann, the AAP candidate from Sardulgarh in Mansa district, comes across as the worst offender from the party with three paid news cases to his name.
However, it is the INC that is leading the state in the number of paid news cases against its candidates. Thirty cases of paid news by INC candidates have been recognised by CEO, Punjab. The pick of the lot is Amrinder Singh (alias Raja Warring), the sitting Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Gidderbaha constituency in Sri Muktsar Sahib district, who, like Nakai from SAD, has five separate cases of paid news against him.
Additionally, INC candidate from Patiala (Rural) Brahm Mahindra takes the cake with a report published in Hindi daily Punjab Kesari on February 3. In this sterling piece of journalism headlined, “Jyotish ki nazar me Brahm Mahindra ka rajneetik taara poore charam par [Brahm Mahindra’s political career is at its peak, astrologer predicts], “internationally renowned astrologer Lalit Sharma Nabha” predicted a thumping victory after analysing Mahindra’s kundli [horoscope].
Clipping of paid news about Brahm Mahindra from EC website
Despite recognising that paid news “misleads the public”, causes “undue influence on voters” and “disturbs the level playing field among political parties and candidates”, the CEO, Punjab cannot initiate legal proceedings against the candidates involved in this practice. “The expenditure [of getting paid news published] is included in the candidate’s register,” said Sibin. “Till now, there is no penal action,” he added.
The cases will be further referred to a national committee at the ECI level, he added. Sibin revealed that the CEO, Punjab still has to hear the appeal in one complaint, following which all the cases will be forwarded to the national level committee for review.
Once the national committee deems a piece of news to be paid news, it refers the cases of “print media and electronic media to PCI and National Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) respectively for taking necessary action in the matter”. “If there is a penal provision, then there will be some action against the media, but till now there is nothing like that,” Sibin told Newslaundry.
With the setting up of MCMCs at the district level, ECI has shown that it is serious about curbing the practice of paid news during elections. However, in the absence of strict legal deterrents, it seems likely to flourish unless the media regulates its own actions. That is perhaps the reason why ECI Director Dhirendra Ojha recently stressed the need of the media to “decide what falls into the category of paid news and steer clear of the menace”.