Home >Politics >Policy >Tough rules on paid news proposed in draft Press Bill

New Delhi: The government has introduced a draft law that allows for the suspension of publications that pass off advertisements or paid-for content as news or analysis—just as campaigning for the national election heats up.

The ministry of information and broadcasting hasput up a draft of the Press and Registration of Books and Publications Bill, 2013, on its website.

The draft legislation states that publications “found to be indulging in or having indulged in the practice of paid news, on the basis of adjudication by the press council of India or any other quasi Judicial/Judicial authority... may suspend the publication for such period as may be prescribed by the central government".

The draft defines paid news as “any news or analysis in the publication for a price in cash or kind as consideration". This covers digital content as well.

“I think the idea of coming up with measures to act against the menace of paid news is a good one, but there needs to be a lot more clarity and debate on the mechanics of detection and enforcement before rushing to find a legislative or regulatory solution," Siddharth Varadarajan, former editor of The Hindu, said in an email. He added that conditions in the draft law under which publications can be suspended are “very sweeping and liable for misuse".

Paid news triggered a controversy after the previous general election in 2009, with media reports claiming several politicians paid publications to put out positive reports on them ahead of the polls.

The Press Council of India, in a report in 2010, identified instances where newspapers had indulged in publishing paid-for reports that masqueraded as news or analysis. A parliamentary standing committee on information technology headed by parliamentarian Rao Inderjit Singh, in a report submitted in May, suggested a law to prevent the problem of paid news.

The report cited advertisements appearing as news reports as well as the practice of preventing news coverage of certain political parties as being part of this phenomenon.

The Election Commission too has taken a stern view of paid news and in August 2012 moved to set up a media certification and monitoring committee that would be active in every election district and monitor for instances of paid news. These committees are currently active in poll-bound Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Mizoram.

Earlier this year, the Election Commission estimated the market for political advertising masquerading as journalism at as much as 500 crore. It estimated that about 40% of the election expenditure of political parties was earmarked towards publicity that included media advertisements. Of the total amount paid to media firms, it estimated half to be towards paid news.

Currently, paid news is not an electoral offence, but the Election Commission had proposed to the law ministry to make it an electoral offence, Mint reported on 2 February.

Media analyst Sevanti Ninan, founder of media website and a columnist in Mint on media, said the draft law “needs to be spelt out more clearly and I would like there to be more clarity on what kind of quasi-judicial body are being referred to in this law".

Some lawyers, too, questioned the basis of the draft law and said the penalties proposed are excessive.

“To allow for one act of paid news to end the life of a newspaper completely seems very harsh," said media law expert Apar Gupta.

“The constitutional basis of this law is also a bit dodgy," said Gopal Sankaranarayanan, an advocate at the Supreme Court. “There is no obligation on the part of news organizations to have a noble effect. In a sense lobbyists and public relation companies also do the same thing of trying to get good coverage for their clients," he said. “Paid news can be much better regulated by having penalties. These measures seem excessively unreasonable."

Varadarajan also suggested other measures to prevent instances of paid news and increase transparency.

“The rules governing press registration can be used as a lever to generate financial transparency in the functioning of registered publications. For example, publications could be required to disclose the percentage and quantum of revenue they raise from newsstand sales, monthly and annual subscriptions, government advertising, private advertising, sponsored supplements and features, paid news, private treaties and in-kind swaps of coverage for equity stakes, etc.," he said.

Vardarajan added that the government could make it obligatory for an offending publication to publish to its readers that what they read as “news" was in fact paid for by an interested party.

“This obligatory reputation loss will be more effective a deterrent to owners and publishers considering paid news than the threat of their registration being cancelled, and would also avoid the risk of the government using the charge of ‘paid news’ to unfairly target publications that are critical of it," he added.

Ninan and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, journalist and an independent media analyst, were less optimistic. “The Indian media consumer doesn’t seem to get offended by the instances of paid news," said Ninan.

Taking a broader view, Guha Thakurta said, “The rot has actually set in so deep that it remains to be seen how this completely dissuades people who want to indulge in unethical practices."

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