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‘Paid News’: The Missing Debate in the Elections

The phenomenon of paid news, with the increasing footprints of social media and data-based poll management, needs to be reassessed and redefined.

Major political parties aiming to seize power in Andhra Pradesh, appear to be redrawing the boundaries of paid news. It is public knowledge that Sakshi is owned and operated on behalf of the YSR Congress Party led by YS Jagan Mohan Reddy. Similarly, the Andhra Jyothi works for the Telugu Desam Party. In this election both the newspapers carved out a new path, according to the reliable sources, in circumventing the Election Commission guidelines on paid news. Contesting candidates in any assembly seats would pay in lump sum amount against which the newspapers would agree to distribute an agreed number of copies in that particular constituency. Accordingly, the production lines and distribution and circulation channels are rejigged in Andhra Pradesh. Thus unlike the last time, the contesting candidates of the TDP and the YCP do not intend to plant occasional stories in the name of the news items. This is expected to consolidate the division of votes along party lines further.

Over the last decade, the role of paid news during elections became a heated debate. The Press Council of India, the lone so-called autonomous institution that regulates the media, felt that the paid news is a complex phenomenon that acquired different forms over the last six decades. It went on to define paid news as “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print & electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration.”

As pointed out by the founder editor of The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan, in his recent Reuters Memorial Lecture, the phenomenon of paid news is an outcome of several factors mainly centred around the viability of existing business models in the media industry. Narottam Mishra was the first elected representative to be disqualified for using the paid news mechanism to suppress the actual expenditure incurred during campaigns for the 2008 Madhya Pradesh assembly elections.
It was during the 2009 general elections that the issue of paid news attracted the nation’s attention and forced the Parliament to debate. Under heat from the Parliament, the then-Central Election Commissioner was forced to take the cognisance of the phenomenon. Until 2009, this phenomenon operated at individual contestants’ level, but now it has gravitated into an organised effort by parties claiming stakes for power.

Followed by a high decibel debate in Parliament, the Central Election Commission in 2013 attempted to track the paid news incidents. As a result, in Punjab 523 cases were identified and 495 instances in Gujrat during assembly elections in 2012. In 2013, the CEC issued 279 notices in M.P., and 161 notices in 2018 assembly elections. In December 2013, during the assembly elections in Delhi, the Chief Electoral officer recommended action against at least six candidates for not disclosing the amounts paid for the planting of stories/news in their electoral expenditure.

It was in this context that the CEC wrote to Ministry of Law & Justice seeking amendments to the Representation of People Act 1951 to include paid news as an electoral offence with a minimum two-year jail term for publishing or abetting publishing of paid news. A 2015 Law Commission Report on electoral reforms also recommended that the Representation of People Act should be amended to regulate paid news and political advertisements. It stated that definitions of “paying for news”, “receiving payment for news” and “political advertisements” should be included in the section of RPA that includes disqualification of candidates. But there was no action on these recommendations by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government.

Confirming the above apprehension is the 2018 Cobrapost sting operation. Cobrapost representatives approached Andhra Jyothi, a Telugu daily, in 2018 with an offer for paid news, regarding which the paper’s marketing head expressed interested. Despite this being public knowledge, the 2019 General Elections CEC presser failed even to mention the phrase “paid news” in its 114-page press release detailing the polling schedule. Unsurprisingly no political party raised this issue with the Central Election Commission.

The phenomenon of paid news, with the increasing footprints of social media and data-based poll management, needs to be reassessed and redefined. The recent experiences in using social media tools by BJP and the government, for whom everything is app-based, warrants this on a war footing. It was observed in the recently concluded assembly elections in Telangana that the ruling TRS party manufactured nearly 60 lakh promotional postings, which were circulated in social media apart from the telecallers doing their bit. Similarly, for this general elections as well, various data manipulation teams were brought into election campaigns by the TDP, the YSRCP, the BJP and the Congress in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Unless this is adequately addressed, the media is going to vitiate the election environment by disabling the candidates who have stood on the back foot in using such propaganda tactics.

Veeraiah Konduri is a senior journalist and commentator.

Also read: The Story Of The Big Lie. And The BJP

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