Electoral malpractices such as bribing voters, impersonation, intimidation of voters by the goons of rival candidates, tampering with vote lists, and manipulating the location of polling booths to suit the needs of particular contestants have been as old as the Indian Republic.

Many of these complaints were heard in the first General Election, held in 1952. Every subsequent election saw new additions to this list of improprieties, which included abuse of power by bureaucrats and the police in support of the ruling group.

The 1970s saw a spurt in electoral violence, large-scale rigging of polls, booth capturing, ballot stuffing, and the mass removal of the names of voters from the electoral rolls. That has been checked, to a large extent, by the various measures adopted by the Election Commission of India (ECI) to clean up the electoral process.

But the ECI has completely failed in one area, that is, in curbing the corruption of elections through money power. The 2009 elections witnessed the worst in this regard.

Truly shocking was what happened during the run-up to the Maharashtra Assembly elections in mid-October 2009 and the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh earlier in the year. In both cases, the authors and chief perpetrators of the election-related malpractices are sadly from the media — which ought to have been, and actually were in the not-so-distant past, in the forefront of the campaign for free, fair, clean, and violence-free elections.

Selling news space

In both States, influential sections of both the print and broadcast media sold their news space or news slots to electoral candidates or their parties, throwing to the wind all professional and ethical norms and probably violating the law as well. In both States, the media, mostly Indian language newspapers and TV channels reportedly made hundreds of crores of rupees in these deals. The transactions enabled the contestants to buy space and publish all they wanted to project themselves in favourable light to the electorate. Those who refused to purchase the “coverage packages” were reported to have been denied publicity.

While P. Sainath exposed this shockingly extensive malpractice witnessed in Maharashtra in his edit page article, “The medium, message and the money” ( The Hindu, October 26, 2009), the “cash transfer scheme” in Andhra Pradesh involving influential sections of the media, was actually brought to light in May this year by the Press Academy of Andhra Pradesh and the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists based at Hyderabad. But somehow this failed to get wider attention.

Thanks to the efforts of the two organisations, the Press Council of India (PCI) is looking into the matter. It has constituted a two-member committee to go into the phenomenon of “paid news.” The Press Council’s intervention followed a representation to its Chairman, Justice G.N. Ray from a group of senior journalists, who included Kuldip Nayar, Ajit Bhattacharjee, and Harivansh.

Many journalists have expressed their anguish over the “selling of news space,” which would jeopardise public trust in the media and lower credibility. The Council expressed serious concern over the phenomenon of paid news. It could cause double jeopardy to Indian democracy through a damaging influence on press functioning as well as on the free and fair election process. There was an urgent need to protect the public’s right to information so that it was not misled in deciding the selection quotient of the candidates in the fray, the Council said. PCI Chairman Ray described the media “scheme [of] paid news” as “nefarious.”

In Maharashtra

As for Maharashtra, the Election Commission is yet to take any initiative in going after this malpractice. Towards the end of his article Sainath appreciates the “fine job” done by the Commission in curbing “rigging, booth capturing and ballot stuffing” through its “interventions and activism.” However, he comments: “On the money power front ... and the media’s packaging of big money interests as ‘news’ ... it is hard to find a single instance of rigorous or deterrent action. These too, after all, are serious threats. More structured, much more insidious than crude ballot stuffing. Far more threatening to the basics of not just elections, but democracy itself.”

The intervention of the Press Council of India and hopefully of the Election Commission can go some way in reiterating the responsibility of the media in putting its house in order, not to speak of its role in ensuring that the play of money power in one of its crudest forms is exposed and curbed.

However, the issue needs to be taken beyond this. This may entail taking a fresh look at the functioning of the self-regulating mechanism in the media. More truths have to be brought to light, for instance, the role of journalists in such shameless media misadventures and how far they can be used for or forced into such questionable assignments. Do journalistic ethics concern only journalists? Do they relate solely to the news and editorial functions of the media or also to their business side?

These and many other questions may surface in the months and years ahead if such tendencies continue and spread to more sections of the media. The strengthening of the self-regulatory system of the media is certainly an urgent imperative.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in