Publishing poll candidate’s propaganda is paid news: Election Commission

Poll panel tells Supreme Court that it can’t be allowed as free speech.

September 23, 2018 10:42 pm | Updated September 24, 2018 12:04 am IST - NEW DELHI

The Supreme Court of India in New Delhi.
Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

The Supreme Court of India in New Delhi. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Repeated publication of propaganda lauding the achievements of a candidate in an election is nothing but “paid news”, the Election Commission of India has told the Supreme Court.

Politicians cannot say that it is part of their fundamental right to free speech to spew out “motivated propaganda”.

The EC has asked the court to declare whether it amounts to “paid news” if widely circulated daily newspapers cover statements issued by, and in the name of, a candidate that are not only laudatory of his or her record and achievements but also are a direct appeal to voters by the candidate.

‘Unequal advantage’

“If such motivated propaganda is allowed in the garb of free speech during the election period, candidates with a strong network of connections and undefined relationships will exploit their sphere of influence in society and will have the unequal advantage of encashing such silent services,” the EC, represented by advocate Amit Sharma, said in a special leave petition.

The commission has moved the court in appeal against a decision of the Delhi High Court on May 18 to set aside the disqualification of Madhya Pradesh BJP leader Narottam Mishra.

The commission’s National Level Committee on Paid News found that five newspapers, with a wide circulation, had published 42 news items that were “biased and one-sided and aimed at furthering the prospects of Mr. Mishra”.

Some of the reports were advertisements in favour of him. The committee concluded that the items fitted the definition of “paid news”.

The EC on June 23 last year disqualified Mr. Mishra for not filing the accounts for money spent as election expenses on news items. Though a single judge of the High Court upheld the commission’s decision to disqualify Mr. Mishra, a Division Bench concluded that the BJP leader was merely exercising his fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.

Mr. Mishra’s witnesses also denied receiving any money from him for favourable coverage.

‘An unholy alliance’

“The conduct of the eager supporters, whose extensive coverage, as in this case, being dubbed as freedom of expression cannot be termed news because ‘news’ is expected to be unbiased and characterised by dispassionate coverage and proportionate space to other contenders,” the EC countered in its appeal.

Calling such relationships between candidates and publications an “unholy alliance,” the EC said the appeal was significant because if the court shut its eye to this case, “the assertion of freedom of speech would become a stock pretence or plea by the service provider and the beneficiary candidate”.

The commission said its powers to investigate the contents of such news coverage should not be thwarted.

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