News paid for by candidates during assembly and parliamentary elections should be considered an electoral malpractice that will attract two-year imprisonment, says Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi.
The Election Commission has recommended this to the central government, Quraishi said.
About 10 days ago, the commission also issued new guidelines on election coverage by television channels owned by political parties or family members of political leaders, Quraishi told a panel discussion on ‘paid news’ at the India International Centre here Wednesday evening.
Quraishi, who watched a short film “Brokering News” made by Umesh Aggarwal on behalf The Media Foundation and the Public Service Broadcaster Trust (PSBT) ahead of the panel discussion on the issue of ‘paid news’, said it had brought out “the gravity” of the problem.
The 40-minute film documents the modus operandi of newspapers and television channels in soliciting advertisements in the garb of editorial content and highlights journalists being coopted by politicians and corporate honchos in their political and business deals.
“We have written to the government that the package of electoral reforms that is before it should include paid news as a corrupt practice punishable under the Representation of Peoples Act and the punishment should be two years imprisonment,” the chief election commissioner said.
Quraishi said the Election Commission came across the problem of paid news in 2009.
“After years of electoral reforms, when we thought we had cleaned the process, we came with unforeseen situations…unlimited money power, criminals in politics, and paid news,” he said.
During the assembly elections in Tamil Nadu this year, Qureshi said the election commission received less number of complaints of paid news, as most political parties there owned newspapers and television channels.
“Hence, only 10 days ago, we issued new guidelines on television channels and newspapers owned by political parties,” he said. “My fear is the fourth estate should not become the fifth column.”
Prasar Bharati chairperson Mrinal Pande said “Brokering News” was a film, “whose time has come” and called for a “fearless” debate on paid news.
Pande also raised the issue of ownership patterns of media houses, with most owners doubling up as editors. “Whom are you more loyal to…readers or shareholders?” she asked.
Mint newspaper editor R. Sukumar said he would have “scripted” the film differently and made it “tighter”.
“We all know that there are paid content, there are unpaid and dishonest content. This is what worries me more…It is the job of organisations and right-thinking editors to have checks and balances in place to weed out such biases,” he added.
NDTV managing editor (Special Projects) Pankaj Pachauri called for creating an independent commission to probe media malpractices. “The time has come. Because the media in this country has been hijacked by corporate interests and more so and more importantly political interest,” he added.