The Centre on Friday said it was mulling over giving more powers to the Press Council of India (PCI) to tackle the ‘paid news syndrome' that was influencing the functioning of a free Press.

“The PCI, an autonomous body set up under the Press Council Act, 1978, has been asking for more powers… We have got fresh proposals from them, which are currently under consideration,” Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni said in the Rajya Sabha.

Responding to a call attention notice, she said the PCI had been writing to successive governments to enhance its powers, but the issue was hanging fire. It had come to the limelight once again when some leading media organisations and other stakeholders complained about the ‘paid news syndrome' during the Lok Sabha elections.

“In view of all this, the PCI has constituted a sub-committee to consider this issue and has met various stakeholders, including the Election Commission of India, the Indian Newspapers Society (INS) and the Indian Language Newspapers Association (ILNA). It will submit its report by the month-end for further action.”

Pointing out that there was strong circumstantial evidence of the malpractice, Ms. Soni said: “The media acts as a repository of public trust for conveying correct and true information to the people. However, when paid information is presented as news content, it could mislead the public and hamper their judgment to form a correct opinion. Thus, there is no denying the fact that there is an urgent need to protect the public's right to correct and unbiased information. It is important that all sections should introspect on this issue, as it has wide-ranging implications for our democratic structure.”

Urging media barons to uphold the primacy of editors, Ms. Soni lauded efforts of some media houses and individuals for vigorously raising the issue. The Editors Guild of India also condemned this unethical practice and called upon all editors to desist from publishing any form of advertisements which masqueraded as news.

Earlier speaking on the issue, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley asked the government to either bring legislation or set up a regulator to penalise culprits and prohibit them from indulging in this malpractice that threatened democracy and jeopardised free and fair elections. Terming the PCI a “toothless wonder,” Mr. Jaitley said the ECI could also be empowered to penalise political parties and candidates involved in purveying paid news.

Sitaram Yechury of the CPI (M) suggested that the government stop its advertisements to media organisations found indulging in such malpractices. Seeking severe action against culprits, he said this phenomenon of paid news was the outcome of the nexus between corrupt politicians and media houses. “The government needs to act urgently to rescue journalism from corporate muzzle.”

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