The constitution of an Expenditure Monitoring Division in the Election Commission of India indicates that the ECI is stepping up its efforts to tackle ‘paid news' and other abuses of money power during elections. The 2009 elections, to the Lok Sabha and to some State legislatures, saw a spate of complaints as millions of rupees were spent by powerful political parties and candidates to plant ‘paid news' in sections of the media.
The ECI has ordered the setting up of “district-level committees for scrutiny of paid news during election periods.” These will consist of the District Electoral Officer or his deputy, the district-level Public Relations Officer, an official of the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, if there is one in the district, and an “independent citizen / journalist as may be recommended by the PCI.”
The ECI has circulated the report of the Press Council of India on ‘paid news' to its own officials. (The document that has been circulated, however, is the truncated report of the PCI which does not include the detailed but now-sidelined report of its own sub-committee — “Paid News: How corruption in the Indian Media undermines Indian Democracy” (see ‘The Empire Strikes Back — and How,' The Hindu, August 5, 2010). The ECI had no choice but to do this as the PCI submitted only a 12-page report to it, without attaching the sub-committee's 72-page report. The latter has much greater detail and is far more instructive on the subject of ‘paid news'.
However, the ECI has acted with greater seriousness on the matter.
In June 2010, it sent out one round of instructions to its officers. All the instructions are on the Commission's website.
Even earlier, the ECI sent out notices to some of thosewho have been accused of having indulged in the practice, including Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan.
Bihar will be a test case. Muscle-power has been a far greater phenomenon than ‘paid news' in Bihar.
The latter is much less in the State compared with, say, Maharashtra.
However, the lessons from the Bihar polls could see a stepping up of such measures by the ECI in Assembly polls that are to follow in 2011.