Pay to publish: making paid news an electoral offence

An M.P. Minister’s disqualification underlines need to make paid news an electoral offence

The Election Commission’s order disqualifying Madhya Pradesh Minister Narottam Mishra for three years is an important step in curbing ‘paid news’ in the electoral arena. It is not the first such order. An Uttar Pradesh MLA, Umlesh Yadav, was disqualified in 2011 on the same ground, of suppressing expenditure incurred in the publication of paid news. The EC has called paid news, a term that refers to propaganda in favour of a candidate masquerading as news reports or articles, a “grave electoral malpractice” on the part of candidates to circumvent expenditure limits. In a typical inquiry into the paid news phenomenon, the newspaper or publication concerned denies that it was paid for publishing the material and insists that it was part of its normal election coverage. The candidate denies authorising the publication and takes the plea that he or she could not possibly account for something that was not paid for. Mr. Mishra was no exception. He, in fact, argued that his rivals could be behind the 42 reports that the EC’s National Level Committee on Paid News found to be nothing but election advertisements, without any disclaimer. However, the EC did not buy his arguments, mainly because it was difficult to believe that he had not seen reports that appeared in his Datia constituency during the campaign for the 2008 Assembly elections, often with his picture and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s symbol. Many of these reports carried identical words, and in some there was a direct appeal for votes on his behalf.

Paid news is not an electoral offence yet, but there is a case to make it one. The EC has recommended to the government that the Representation of the People Act, 1951, be amended to make the publishing, or abetting the publishing, of paid news to further a candidate’s prospects or prejudicially affect another’s an electoral offence. Until this is done, contestants who use paid news can only be hauled up for failing to include the expenses involved in their campaign accounts. In Mr. Mishra’s case, the EC has taken the view that even if it were true that he made no payment, he ought to have included a notional amount in his accounts. Also, candidates cannot simply claim that these reports were not authorised by them. As long as the intention to boost someone’s prospects was clear, and there was no objection from the candidate, the EC can rule that there was ‘implied authorisation’. Mr. Mishra’s case pertains to the 2008 election, and by the time the Commission has given its verdict he is into his next term, having been re-elected in 2013. It is difficult not to notice that the enormous delay in adjudicating such questions is often created by candidates approaching the courts to stall inquiries. A legal framework in which electoral issues are expeditiously adjudicated must also be put in place if election law is to be enforced in both letter and spirit.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 5:00:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/pay-to-publish/article19165976.ece

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