The government said on Friday “paid news” was a serious matter, as it influenced the functioning of a free Press and there was an urgent need to protect the people’s right to “unbiased information”.
“…when paid information is presented as news content, it could mislead the public and hamper their judgment to form a correct opinion,” Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni said in response to a calling attention motion in the Rajya Sabha.
Paid news is broadly publishing/broadcasting advertisements masquerading as news.
In the last few months, media reports had talked about sections of the Press receiving money for publishing or broadcasting in favour of a particular individual or an organisation what were essentially advertisements disguised as news, said Soni.
The Press Council of India (PCI) was garnering evidence from the Election Commission and will submit a report by March-end, paving way for a structured debate in Parliament. She said it was commendable that the issue had been vigorously raised by sections of the media. The Opposition asked the government to crack down on “paid news” and impose deterrent penalties. “Paid news” had nothing to do with free speech but was tantamount to “trade or business with unlawful purpose that threatens democracy”, Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley said.
A regulator should be set up with powers to impose deterrent penalties, he said. “Paid news” violated income-tax laws and subverted free and fair elections, the BJP leader said. “If the government has the will to find a solution, it is possible.”
He dubbed the PCI — a statutory body that governs the conduct of the print and broadcast media — a “toothless wonder”.
Soni said the government had received fresh proposals from the media watchdog for widening its powers.
CPM’s Sitaram Yechury, who moved the calling attention motion, said the Centre should stop giving ads to media houses indulging in the malpractice. “It manipulates democracy by denying equal access to those who can’t indulge in such malpractices,” he said.