An officer of the Indian Administrative Service belonging to 1971 batch from the Haryana cadre, Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi, retired as Chief Election Commissioner on 10 June 2012. Holding a doctorate on the role of communications and social marketing in the development of women and children, during his term as CEC, he took a number of initiatives to curb “paid news” or the practice by candidates standing for elections (including representatives of political parties) to pay newspapers and television channels for publishing or broadcasting favourable “news”.
In an exclusive interview with Paranjoy Guha Thakurta for The Hoot, Dr Quraishi outlines why he took proactive steps to curb content that was essentially advertising masquerading as independently-produced news.
Q: During your tenure as Chief Election Commissioner, why did the Election Commission take a number of initiatives to curb the practice of paid news by candidates and political parties?
A: We have an election system that the world looks up to, an election system that even advanced democracies acknowledge as good. The recent phenomenon of paid news, which is assuming alarming proportion as a serious electoral malpractice, has been causing concern to the Commission in the context of the conduct of free and fair elections. Paid news seeks to circumvent election expenditure laws, specifically the ceiling on expenses that can be incurred by a candidate, causes undue influence on voters and also affects their right to receive fair and accurate information. Political parties and media groups had approached the Commission in delegations requesting that strong steps be taken against paid news. There was consensus among all political parties in this regard when their representatives met officials of the Election Commission twice, on 4 October 2010 and again on 9 March 2011. The widely accepted view was that the Commission must initiate stringent measures against paid news.
Q: What were these initiatives and to what extent where you successful in curbing the practice?
A: The Commission acted decisively using its available discretionary and regulatory mechanisms to deal with the problem. Starting June 2010, it has issued instructions to state and district officers to scrutinize, identify and report cases of paid news. The Commission has appointed a Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) at the district level for certification of advertisements and to monitor the media for paid news. The MCMC vigorously scrutinizes all newspapers and the electronic media in the particular district in order to locate political advertisements in the garb of news. Similar committees have been created at the state level as well as the level of the Commission.
These measures against paid news were enforced strictly for the first time during the assembly elections in Bihar in 2010. The Commission had served show-cause notices in 121 cases in the state. During the assembly elections in Assam, Kerala, West Bengal, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu, over 250 notices were issued. During the recently-held elections to five state assemblies, over 500 notices were issued.
Q: Do you think the practice of “paid news” should be made a cognizable offence? If yes, would that require the Representation of the People Act, 1951, (especially Section 123) to be amended by Parliament? What, according to you, should be the penalties that should be imposed on those who indulge in the practice of paid news?
Yes. The Commission has proposed an amendment to the Representation of People Act, 1951, to provide for situations where publishing and abetting the publishing of paid news for furthering the electoral prospect of any candidate or for prejudicially affecting the prospect of election of any candidate, be made a cognizable electoral offence, with a minimum punishment of two years imprisonment. A proposal in this regard was sent to the government more than a year ago. More than the penalty that has been suggested in the Commission’s proposal, the exposure or negative publicity would serve as a deterrent for both political parties and media houses. The Commission’s regulatory action has already had a salutary impact.
Q: Should these penalties be imposed on the person or political party “paying” for news as well as those who receive money for “paid news” – the so-called bribe-giver and bribe-taker?
A: Under the law, both the bribe giver and the bribe taker have committed offences. Hence, both sides are liable to action. However, at this point, the Commission acts only against the candidate and leaves the action with respect to the media to the Press Council of India, which is the right body for this purpose.
Q: But the Press Council does not possess punitive powers. It can at best admonish an individual or censure an organization, that’s all. What can the Press Council of India do to check the practice of “paid news” given its limited powers?
A: If the Press Council is handicapped in this manner, so is the Election Commission. The Commission only manages elections and it has powers to punish candidates standing for elections and political parties. It will not be proper for me to comment on the powers of Press Council. It is an issue between the Council, the executive and the legislature. But the Election Commission is definitely looking forward to the Press Council of India’s enhanced support in detecting paid news and in enforcing norms for the media.
Q: How difficult is it to detect offenders indulging in paid news, considering that the transactions are clandestine and there is usually no documentary evidence?
A: That is indeed a challenge. As I have often said, paid news is like a snake whose hood is down and its tail is underground. It is not quite feasible to take it head-on. It is also not easy to pull the snake out. There is circumstantial evidence of all types, but little proof. Establishing the fact that transactions have taken place in cash or in kind, is indeed not very easy. There are usually no records and any allegation that is raised during an inquiry is promptly denied by both sides. The Commission has tried to include professionals in the Monitoring Committees as much as feasible in order to help identify paid news. The Commission has been repeatedly asking the Press Council of India to provide us with a set of criteria to judge what paid news is. The Commission has also been requesting the Press Council to provide it with a specialist member for the Monitoring Committees. You will appreciate that the Election Commission of India is not a specialist agency on the media and would require the support and expertise of bodies like the PCI to deal with this complex issue.
Q: Besides the Election Commission, which are the other government agencies that can help in the detection of offenders in this regard -- would such agencies include the Income Tax Department and local police authorities?
A: The Election Commission is already taking help from the Income Tax Department and also other officials for enforcing regulatory measures against paid news. I would think the Press Council of India can play a much larger role in the identification of paid news and also in curbing this malpractice in the media. The government of India, especially the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and its media departments like the DAVP (Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity) and the Press Information Bureau, should come out with a positive action plan at the earliest to deal with this menace. We should not overlook that the fact that the problem of paid news does not only affect the election process; it impacts the society at large and the credibility of the media as well.
Q: What is the significance of the case involving Mrs Umlesh Yadav who became the first sitting MLA to be disqualified by the Election Commission of India for a period of three years in October 2011 for suppression of election-related expenses, including expenses incurred on paid news?
A: The case has, of course, sent out a loud message that the Commission is serious about fighting money power in elections and that it is serious about tackling paid news. Candidates will now think many times before they violate the laws on spending money on publicity in the hope of obtaining electoral gains. As already stated, the measures against paid news that have been taken up by the Commission over the last two years are already showing results. The Commission is now determined to deal with this problem as sternly as it has tried to check the influence of muscle power and incumbency power.
Q: In the case of the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra Ashok Chavan, the Election Commission was not successful in penalising him for indulging in the practice of “paid news”. Why?
A: The fact is that the Election Commission has served the requisite notice on Shri Chavan. He has challenged the jurisdiction of the Commission before the Supreme Court. The matter is currently sub judice.
Q: What, according to you, should be the future strategies of different stakeholders in tackling “paid news”?
A: The Commission considers self-regulation by political parties, candidates and media houses as the real solution to this malaise. Political parties and media houses have to think over the issue. The Election Commission of India must not relent in its fight against paid news. Enforcement needs to be streamlined and the Commission’s instructions would require greater clarity. As the Commission’s intention is more preventive rather than punitive, it must unleash an educational campaign on the ills of paid news among political parties, media houses and other stakeholders. I would expect a more proactive role to be played by the government, Parliament and the Press Council in the coming days. Having said this, I also realise the limitations of self-regulation. Not all thieves can be made to mend their ways. Self-regulation may be the ideal solution to the problem of paid news, but it is not the most realistic one. I think the best option under the circumstances is to have in place a suitably-empowered independent regulator for the media.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is the author, with K Sreenivas Reddy, of the report commissioned by the Press Council on paid news.