After flagging 80 cases of paid news in the recently-concluded Assembly elections in Punjab, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has taken cognisance of 13 cases of paid news in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and two in Uttarakhand as well. Further, ECI officials in Goa and Manipur told Newslaundry that no cases of paid news have been registered in these two states. While voting is yet to happen in Manipur and three phases still remain in the UP election, polling closed in Goa and Uttarakhand on February 4 and February 15, respectively.
As reported earlier by Newslaundry, ECI has constituted Media Certification and Monitoring Committees (MCMC) in all districts of poll-bound states to “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”. The Press Council of India (PCI) defines paid news as “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print and electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration”. According to ECI guidelines, once a piece of news is adjudged paid news, its cost is calculated based on the amount of space it occupies in the publication which is then added to the candidate’s campaign expenditure.
A nodal officer in the Uttarakhand MCMC told Newslaundry (on condition of anonymity) that a total of four suspected cases of paid news were flagged and notices were sent to the offending candidates, after which “two cases were confirmed as paid news”.
One of these cases is against Congress candidate from Sitarganj Assembly constituency Malti Biswas, he revealed, who got an “advertorial” published in the Hindi daily Amar Ujala. “The MCMC considered it as paid news and it resembled an advertorial or what is called a ‘consumer connect initiative’,” he said. “They [MCMC] took it as paid news and candidate has accepted it. The candidate has also added the expenditure of Rs 90,000-92,000 to her accounts.”
When Newslaundry contacted Sanjay Tripathi, Uttarakhand bureau chief of Amar Ujala, he said he had “no idea” about this issue and didn’t have any input in publishing the piece.
Aryendra Sharma, an independent candidate from Sahaspur Assembly constituency who was formerly a member of the Congress, is the other candidate who the ECI has rapped for paid news, the official said. A Dehradun-based Hindi weekly called The Beginning had printed “five-six pages” in Sharma’s favour, which was considered to be paid news by the MCMC, he explained.
Meanwhile, after three phases of polling in UP, 13 cases of paid news have been flagged by the office of the CEO, UP. Ten cases have been reported from Mathura district and three from Kanpur Dehat district, Joint Chief Electoral Officer, UP, JP Singh told Newslaundry. “Thirteen cases have been confirmed so far and apart from that more cases are being reported from different phases which will be compiled later,” Singh said.
One of the cases in Mathura district is against Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from Baldev Assembly constituency Pooran Prakash who, Singh said, had the same article published in a number of publications – including Amar Ujala – which was deemed paid news by the office of the CEO, UP. The total cost of publishing these adds up to Rs 73,322, which has been included in Prakash’s campaign expenditure after he admitted that the pieces were indeed paid news, Singh said.
However, Puneet Sharma, Mathura bureau chief of Amar Ujala, was surprised to hear that a paid news case had been registered against the publication. “We received a notice and we gave a reply,” Sharma said. He denied that there was any exchange of money between the newspaper and Prakash for publishing the article.
Unfortunately, unlike the website of Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), Punjab, websites of the respective CEOs in other four poll-bound states haven’t maintained a detailed record of paid news cases registered during the campaign period. Hence, it isn’t possible to scrutinise all the cases of paid news that have been flagged so far.
Even though the election season has yet to end, a total of 95 cases of paid news have been registered in the five states and the real number could be higher. According to Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, editor of the Economic and Political Weekly and co-author of the report of the two-member subcommittee on paid news set up by the PCI in 2010, “Sometimes these committees [MCMCs] are manned by persons of integrity,” he said. “Sometimes the people in-charge are themselves very corrupt.” Moreover, “in the absence of any action which penalises both the person who is paying and the person who receives, paid news continues and is rampant,” Guha Thakurta added.
While the ECI has taken the first step in the fight against paid news, it lacks the teeth to go after politicians and media houses who indulge in the practice. Until it does so, it would be foolish to expect paid news to die out anytime soon.