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Political ads: Centre asked to file reply by April 12

By Our Legal Correspondent

NEW DELHI, APRIL 8 . The Supreme Court today directed the Centre to file by April 12 its response to the Election Commission's proposal to allow only recognised political parties and candidates to telecast advertisements for the coming Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in four States.

A three-member Bench, comprising the Chief Justice V. N. Khare and Justice S. B. Sinha and Justice S. H. Kapadia, acceded to the request of the Attorney-General, Soli Sorabjee, appearing for the Centre, to study the Commission's proposal and come out with the Government's response.

The Bench is hearing an appeal filed by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry against an Andhra Pradesh High Court interim order staying the operation of Rule 7 (3) of the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994, which empowers the Government to ban political and surrogate advertisements in the electronic media. By an interim order, the Bench, on April 2, had already banned telecast of `mudslinging and surrogate' advertisements.

Responding to the court's direction, the Commission today submitted its proposals stating that only political parties registered with the Commission and the contesting candidates would be permitted to issue advertisements on television channels and cable networks.

Further no television channel or cable network would be permitted to carry any advertisement issued by a registered political party or contesting candidates unless they were certified by the Commission as being fit for telecast. The Commission's decision shall not be called in question in any court or tribunal or quasi-judicial authority till the completion of the elections.

Appearing for the Commission, senior counsel, K.K. Venugopal submitted that the advertisements should be given to the Commission seven days in advance along with particulars about the cost incurred for its production, cost of telecast and how many insertions so that the Commission would be able to include it in the election expenses of the contesting candidates or the political party concerned. In the alternative, considering the huge task the court might stay the High Court order and allow Rule 7 (3) to operate as it had been in force for 10 years without any problem.

Mr. Venugopal submitted that there were laws in force in several other democratic countries including Germany, Norway and Switzerland banning political advertisements in electronic media and the Courts of those countries had upheld these laws.

Mr. Sorabjee submitted that Rule 7 (3) was enacted with the objective of ensuring that money power did not distort the electoral process. It was a known fact that the reach and impact of the electronic media far outstrips the reach and impact of all other media. Further since the cost of advertising was more, an ordinary person or small political parties would not have the resources to advertise in television channels.

It was to prevent well-funded and resourceful individuals or organisations from using money power and the power of television to distort the balance of political debate and the electoral process. He said except well-meaning political discussions and debates, other forms of advertisements should not be permitted to be telecast.

Senior counsel, Harish Salve, appearing for Gemini TV, one of the petitioners before the Andhra Pradesh High Court, submitted that Rule 7 (3) violated freedom of speech and expression. He differed with Mr. Sorabjee and said commercial speech was part of political speech and it was a fundamental right. Moreover, there could not be two yardsticks, one for the print media (which had no restriction whatsoever) and the other for the electronic media (imposing restriction), Mr. Salve said.

The Bench thereafter adjourned the hearing to April 12 to enable the Attorney-General to respond to the Commission's suggestions.

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