The suggestion came from CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat.
Several political parties plan to push for an amendment to the Representation of the People Act to declare “paid news” as an electoral malpractice.
The suggestion came from CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat at a seminar on the issue on Saturday. “The Election Commission cannot take any action unless the Representation of the People Act is amended…It [paid news] should be declared an electoral malpractice,” he said.
Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj agreed that this was an important step. She said the Opposition would push for it to be considered when the Lok Sabha debated the issue in the second half of the ongoing session.
Congress spokesperson and Member of Parliament Manish Tewari said he would take the suggestion back to his party and the government as well.
The seminar, organised by the Indian Women's Press Corps, the Editors Guild of India, the Press Association and the Broadcast Editors Association, witnessed several suggestions from both politicians and journalists amid a lively discussion.
Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi said the Commission had power only during the poll period and it was up to legislators to use their power to halt the menace. He promised that the Commission would augment its own machinery, but pointed out that only circumstantial evidence was being put forth so far. There was no transactional evidence that would hold up to legal scrutiny, he said, adding that no political party had made a formal written complaint as yet.
Ms. Swaraj said she and her party were willing to name the media organisations that had approached them with “paid news packages” during elections. She herself was offered a Rs. 1 crore deal to publish news in her favour while campaigning in the Vidisha constituency. “What other evidence do you want?” she asked. “Political parties are the victims in this case…there is no mutual benefit.”
Mr. Tewari also pointed the finger at media organisations, saying that most of them do not function on the premise that news was public service anymore.
“The fundamental dilemma for newspapers is the contradiction between the freedom of the press and the freedom of press owners,” he said.
Editors Guild president Rajdeep Sardesai said putting disclosure norms in place for paid content could help to face the current market realities while maintaining the credibility of news.
Business Standard's T.N. Ninan said editors must be prepared to stand up to owners. He advocated using moral pressure to regulate the media.
Prasar Bharati chairman Mrinal Pande, who was a long-time editor in the Hindi press, said editors could not always be held responsible for checking the contents of multiple editions.
Both Mr. Karat and the former BSP MP, Shahid Siddiqui, said the Election Commission's decision to ban hoardings and wall graffiti as a campaigning method deprived political parties of cheaper means of reaching out to the people, and forced them to depend on corporate media houses.