The sub-committee constituted by the Press Council of India to examine the phenomenon of “paid news” during the recent Lok Sabha elections has expressed concern that some media organisations which are expected to set standards have taken the lead in accepting money for the publication of news.

“The paid news phenomenon is not only eroding the confidence of the people in the media, but is hurting and harming democracy itself,” sub-committee member Paranjoy Guha Thakurta told journalists.

After the conclusion of a two-day meeting with stakeholders on “paid news,” Mr. Thakurta said the owners and representatives of media organisations were denying charges of accepting money for publishing news reports.

“The managements against whom there is considerable circumstantial evidence are adopting a high moral ground when asked about the phenomenon,” he said.

The panel had completed hearings in Mumbai and Hyderabad and was expected to take up a similar exercise in Ahmedabad, Mr. Thakurta said. Representations from several States were pouring in, while P. Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu, and Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan were among others who deposed before the sub-committee.

“It is time for drafting the report and hopefully we will complete it by the end of March,” he said.

Mr. Thakurta said the examination of the phenomenon posed a big problem as “there will be no material evidence and whatever is available is circumstantial.” There was no cheque payment and the receipts the panel managed to get were not genuine, he added.

The panel would request the Election Commission to take steps to ensure that such “malpractices and unethical practices” were curbed in the future. “We are not just deceiving readers/viewers by publishing paid news, but are undermining the credibility of the media itself,” Mr. Thakurta said.

On whether the sub-committee would recommend penal powers to the Press Council, he said: “We may make recommendations, but it is up to Parliament to take a decision in this direction.”

Indian Journalists Union secretary-general and member of the sub-committee K. Srinivas Reddy expressed concern that several managements had not turned up in spite of invitations.

Meena Menon from Mumbai reports

EC should take action

The Election Commission should immediately take action against Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan on the issue of paid news and stop acting like a postman, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Kirit Somaiya said on Wednesday. Mr. Somaiya — who is one of the complainants to the EC regarding the paid news issue after an expose in The Hindu by P. Sainath — told journalists that the party had submitted all the proof and necessary documents to the EC and that it was now time for action. “We have given enough violations in the law and now it is time for the EC to apply the law,” he said.

‘Not satisfactory’

Mr. Chavan’s response to the EC’s letter asking for an explanation was not at all satisfactory, Mr. Somaiya said, adding that the BJP was planning to make another submission to the EC this week countering the Chief Minister’s claims. The BJP submitted to the EC 49 identical news stories that praised Mr. Chavan and his government. In addition, after the Commission’s prompting, the district collector of Nanded sent 32 articles from local newspapers. Mr. Somaiya said Mr. Chavan had not even responded to the crucial question of how so many newspapers carried identical articles. Mr. Chavan, in his reply dated January 29, 2010, stated that the “alleged advertisements referred to in the complaints are nothing but independent assessments of the media and newspapers regarding the achievements and functioning of our government. The said news items were published of their own volition by the said newspapers.”

‘Act is clear’

Mr. Somaiya said the Representation of the People Act, 1951 was clear. In Section 10 A, the EC can disqualify a person for three years if the Commission was satisfied that a person has failed to lodge an account of election expenses within the time and in the manner required under the Act and has no good reason or justification for the failure. He refuted Mr. Chavan’s contention that as per Section 80 of the Act, the election of a returned candidate can be challenged only by filing an election petition before the High Court. In any case, he added, Mr. Chavan’s opponent in the Assembly poll, Madhav Kinhalkar, had already filed a petition in the High Court challenging the election. Meanwhile, the Press Council of India’s report on an inquiry into the paid news issue will be ready by March. Concerns by senior editors in the country led to the Council taking up the issue and also calling for the EC’s opinion on the matter. In turn, the Commission also sought the help of the Council in defining paid news.