They have been asked to strengthen committees to scrutinise advertisements

The Election Commission (EC) has directed the Chief Electoral Officers (CEOs) to observe maximum vigilance, by enforcing existing provisions of law, to check ‘paid news' or surrogate advertisements in the print and electronic media during elections.

In a recent directive, the Commission said the CEOs should strengthen the activities of the State-level committees to scrutinise advertisements in the electronic media, “which bear the character of political advertisement, though without being declared so.” Notices could be issued to candidates and parties on the basis of the reports of these committees.

The District Election Officers (DEOs) should set up similar committees to scrutinise all newspapers, published or having circulation in the district, to locate political advertisement in the garb of news coverage.

“The DEOs should closely monitor advertisements in the print media in any form, including surrogate advertising in the form of news, and serve notices on candidates/political parties, so that the expenses incurred thereon are duly reflected in the account of the candidate/party concerned,” the Commission said.

The Commission said the recent phenomenon of ‘paid news,' which “is assuming an alarming proportion as a serious electoral malpractice,” was causing concern to it. The ‘paid news' had to be seen as an attempt to circumvent the provisions of Sections 77 and 123 (6) of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951, which prescribes accounting and ceiling of election expenses, and makes exceeding the prescribed limits a corrupt practice.

The provisions of Section 127A of the RPA make it mandatory for the publisher of an election advertisement and pamphlet to print his/her name and address as well as that of the printer, and failure to do so attracts imprisonment up to two years and/or a fine of Rs.2,000. Section 171 H of the IPC prohibits expenditure on advertisement without the authority of the candidate.

For the purpose of Section 127A (1) of the RPA, “election pamphlet or poster” means any printed pamphlet, handbills or other document distributed for promoting or prejudicing the election of a candidate or group of candidates …...” Thus, ‘paid news' would also fall in the category of ‘other document' liable to be included in ‘election pamphlet and poster,' the directive said.

The CEOs should keep the Election Commission informed of all cases in which notices were issued to parties and candidates.

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