Proposed amendment to Representation of the People Act could serve as a deterrent to an extent

Amid thousands of pending cases of suspected “paid news” indulged in by the print and electronic media during elections to Assemblies and the Lok Sabha, the Election Commission has once again begun to push for electoral reforms.

A senior EC official on Saturday expressed the hope that the Centre would move a Bill on the reforms in the coming budget session of Parliament. Among the EC’s proposals, made as early as February 3, 2011, was that publication and abetment of “paid news” for furthering the election prospects of any candidate or prejudicially affecting the chances of other contestants be made an offence under the Representation of the People Act, 1951, entailing imprisonment up to two years.

Though the then Law and Justice Minister, M. Veerappa Moily, had given an assurance that a Bill to this effect would be tabled in Parliament, and had visited Nirvachan Sadan (EC office here) for discussions, there has been no result yet, according to an EC official.

In the absence of any legislation to pull up “corrupt journalists” or punish “corruption by the media in the form of publishing news against money”, the EC’s proposed amendment to the RP Act would serve as a deterrent to an extent, said the official.

A few years ago, the EC disposed of a complaint of “abetting paid news” made against Umlesh Yadav, a Rashtriya Parivartan Dal MLA (from Bisauli), disqualifying her for three years for not including the actual expenditure on newspaper publicity in her poll expenses account. However, the media, which encouraged paid news and benefited from the candidate, was not punished, the official said.

Informed sources said the EC did not, at present, have the powers or jurisdiction to haul up newspapers and other media organisations for benefiting from paid news, though complaints had been pending before it against the former Chief Ministers, Ashok Chavan (Maharashtra) and Madhu Koda (Jharkhand).

In the Umlesh Yadav case, the Press Council of India’s opinion formed the basis for the EC to arrive at the conclusion that the candidate indeed gave advertisements and did not account for the same in her expenses. The PCI had said: “The format of the impugned material was such that it would appear as a news report to the layman and the word ADVT printed at the lowest end rather appeared to accompany a small boxed appeal by the candidate.

There was, beyond doubt, a possibility of confusing the voters when the elections were just a day away and all campaigning had stopped. The act was not only unethical by journalistic standards but also in violation of the election laws.”

While the EC hauls up candidates for involvement in paid news, the media concerned are referred to the Press Council for necessary action for publishing advertisements in the garb of news reports against journalistic ethics.

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