Then Law Minister Moily promised a Bill, and “we're still waiting”
The Election Commission, headed by reform-oriented CEC S.Y. Quraishi, is unhappy the government has not considered the changes it has been pushing for so many years, including declaring “paid news” a poll offence.
Mr. Quraishi, known for his voter-friendly reforms, is demitting office on June 10.
On February 3 last year, the EC suggested that publication and abetment of “paid news” for furthering the election prospects of any candidate or prejudicially affecting the chances of other contestants be made an offence under the Representation of the People Act, 1951, entailing imprisonment up to two years.
The then Law and Justice Minister, M. Veerappa Moily, made a promise that a Bill in this regard would be tabled in Parliament. “But nothing happened and we are waiting still,” said an exasperated EC official.
In fact, the then Law Minister had visited Nirvachan Sadan at least thrice to hold discussions with officials on electoral reforms, but nothing came of it.
The amendment to the RP Act, as proposed by the EC, would serve as a deterrent at least to some extent as there were no legislation at present to pull up “corrupt journalists” or punish “corruption by media in the form of publishing news against money,” the official said.
This was all the more important as the EC had a few months ago disposed of the first complaint of encouragement of ‘paid news' made against the then Rashtriya Parivartan Dal MLA (from Bisauli), Umlesh Yadav, disqualifying her for three years for not including the actual expenditure on newspaper publicity in her poll expenses account. Even in this case, the media which encouraged ‘paid news' and benefited from the candidate was not punished, the official said.
Official sources pointed out that right now the EC did not have powers or jurisdiction to haul up newspapers and other media organisations for benefiting from ‘paid news' though complaints had been pending before it against the former Chief Ministers Ashok Chavan (Maharashtra) and Madhu Koda (Jharkhand).
In the Umlesh Yadav case, the Press Council of India's opinion formed the basis for the EC to arrive at the conclusion that the candidate indeed gave advertisements and did not account for the same in her expenses.
The PCI said: “The format of impugned material was such that it would appear as a news report to the layman and the word ADVT printed at the lowest end rather appeared to accompany a small boxed appeal by the candidate. There was beyond doubt a possibility of confusing the voters when the elections were just a day away and all campaigning had stopped. The act was not only unethical by journalistic standards but also in violation of the election laws.”