Continuing its tough line against ‘paid news’, the Election Commission has now disqualified Madhya Pradesh Minister rottam Mishra for three years for not disclosing the money he spent on getting news published in his favour in local media during the Assembly elections in 2008. The EC order said that 42 news items which appeared in five Hindi dailies ‘were extremely biased’ in favour of Mishra, that he ‘not only knowingly submitted a false account of expenses, but also attempted to circumvent the legally prescribed limit on election expenditure’. Widely considered the second-most important minister in the Shivraj Singh Chauhan cabinet, Mishra will not be able to contest the MP Assembly elections next year. The complaint against him was filed in 2009 by his Congress rival, alleging that Mishra had not included expenses incurred on ‘paid news’ while filing his expenditure statement before EC after the 2008 polls — an allegation Mishra has been denying throughout. Ruling against him under sections of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, the full EC bench used strong language to denounce paid news as a mece assuming alarming proportions, a manifestation of the ‘pernicious effect of money in elections’ that is growing ‘increasingly vicious and spreading like cancer’. It needs to be curbed with strong measures and exemplary sanctions to restore balance in the electoral playing field, the EC has asserted. It has however admitted that despite attempts to address the mece of paid news by setting up mechanisms at the State and district levels to probe and report instances, the desired objective ‘does not seem to have been fully achieved’. And therein lies the crux of the problem — paid news is getting increasingly hard to detect.
It remains a fact that media has a direct influence on voters, but few voters are aware of the extent of corporate takeover of media in recent times. This has brought in the much-needed infusion of big capital, but at a price — the sacrifice of jourlistic principles at the altar of commercial interests. As media house owners bow to political clout, allowing space in their newspapers, periodicals or TV channels to be misused for persol benefit — jourlists are induced or put under pressure to write favouring a particular candidate or discrediting his opponent. These ‘paid for’ write-ups, which are for all practical purposes advertisements or advertorials, are then fobbed off on readers as bofide (if opinioted) news items. While ruling against rottam Mishra, the EC has noted that the public, in general, ‘lends more credence to news than advertisements of parties and candidates’ — and publication of such advertisements in the garb of news by way of paid news ‘amounts to deceiving the electorate’. Leading jourlists like P Saith and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta have been warning of this trend that threatens to take away the credibility of jourlists in the long run. And they have pointed out that the quasi-judicial Press Council of India (PCI), for all its watchdog zeal, does not have real investigative powers to track illegal transactions in cash or kind that are connected with paid news. So far the PCI has kept a fair eye on violations of jourlistic ethics of fair and objective reporting in specific instances, but it remains toothless.
Overall, sections of the media are getting away with undermining the democratic process, deceiving readers, hiding the mostly black money received from politicians, and hoodwinking the tax authority. Thus, several law-breaking activities have come to be associated with the paid news phenomenon. The Election Commission therefore deserves kudos for its uncompromising stand against paid news, having struck the first blow in 2011 when it disqualified Uttar Pradesh MLA Umlesh Yadav for failing to record expenditure incurred on advertising during her election campaign in 2007 — a ruling the Allahabad High Court fully upheld. But even as the Election Commission has begun to coordite more with media watchdog bodies like Press Council and News Broadcasting Standards Authority, citizens are already faced with another disturbing trend — the widespread misuse of social media to create false perceptions of huge support for certain politicians, or fake news planted to defame their opponents. All this misuse points to an inevitable outcome — that both mainstream media and social media stand to lose their relevance as citizens learn to discern and keep their own counsel.