The Election Commission (EC) has directed the Gujarat government to set up a Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) to check the menace of paid news during the build-up to December’s State Assembly election.

The EC identified paid news masquerading as news as a major problem during elections. It has also issued guidelines to the MCMC to not only monitor all the political advertisements to be aired on television channels and cable networks during this period, but also keep tab on suspected cases of paid news.

Identical articles with the same photographs and headlines, appearing in competing publications around the same time and carrying bylines of different authors can be a possible case of paid news, the EC has told the committee. Articles praising competing candidates and claiming that both are likely to win the election, and appearing on the same page of specific newspapers, would also come under the EC’s scanner. News items stating that one candidate was being supported by every section of the society and that he would win the election, favouring a candidate without carrying any byline, publishing a banner headline stating that a party or candidate was ready to create history in the State or constituency, but not carrying any news item related to this headline, would also attract the attention of the Commission.

The EC guidelines further stated that news items whose every sentence favoured a particular candidate would be treated as paid news. It said there were instances of fixed size news items, of 125-150 words with double-column photo. Genuine news items were seldom written in such a rigid format, while advertisements were most often published as such, the Commission said.

The MCMC would be required to play a watchdog and in cases of any irregularity or suspected paid news would have to intimate the returning officer for issuance of notice to the candidates for inclusion of actual expenditure on the published matter, or notional expenditure in their election expenses account, either based on or irrespective of whether the candidate actually had paid anything to the newspaper.

Meanwhile, State chief electoral officer Anita Karwal said on Wednesday that till Tuesday more than 2.58-lakh campaign materials, including posters and banners, had been removed from public and private places for violating the election code of conduct. She said strict vigil was being maintained to ensure a free and fair election without any party or candidate having an undue advantage.