If the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has its way, paid news will soon be an electoral offence for candidates.
In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government said that “a proposal to amend the Representation of People Act, 1951 in its entirety is under consideration with the government of India, in which a provision has been proposed for making paid news an electoral offence”.
The government was also considering a proposal to punish media outlets found guilty of publishing paid news by suspending their publication for 45 to 90 days.
On the basis of the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Information Technology, a provision to check paid news has been proposed in the draft Press and Registration of Books and Publication Bill, 2015, it said.
The Law Commission of India, in its report on electoral reforms submitted to the government last year, had said, “Currently the problems of paid content are tackled in a piecemeal manner. Neither is there a blanket prohibition on paid news, nor is there a provision exclusively dealing with political advertisement or paid news.”
The Election Commission and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) too wanted the government to take measures to check it.
The affidavit has been filed in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking an independent probe into alleged nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and corporates in the wake of Essar leaks.
Often criticised for being a “toothless tiger”, the Press Council of India (PCI) too might get the much needed teeth if the proposals are implemented.
The government has told the apex court that it is also mulling changes in the PCI Act, 1978, to give power to the autonomous, statutory body to punish erring newspapers and journalists.
Under the present law, PCI, which has the jurisdiction over newspapers and news agencies, can only warn, admonish or censure the newspaper, the news agency, the editor or the journalist found guilty after an inquiry or disapprove of their conduct.
But now it has been proposed to empower the council, headed by a former judge of the Supreme Court, to direct the state authorities to suspend/stop advertisement to erring publications for a period not exceeding a fortnight/three months for non-compliance of its orders under Section 14 of the PCI Act.