New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday laid down guidelines for publication of government advertisements to avoid the misuse of public funds for plugging the ruling party and glorifying politicians.

One guideline suggests that the photographs of only three dignitaries should be allowed on government ads—the President, Prime Minister and the Chief Justice of India (CJI).

The objective of a government advertisement can be achieved even without a photograph accompanying it, the apex court said, and left it to the better judgment of the three luminaries whether their pictures should be carried on ads paid for by public funds.

Publication of government ads carrying photographs have the potential of promoting “a personality cult and the image of one or a few individuals which is a direct antithesis of democratic functioning", the court said.

A committee set up by the Supreme Court suggested that photographs of political leaders be avoided in general in government advertisements, but made an exception for the President/Prime Minister or state governor/chief minister for “effective Government messaging".

But the apex court restricted government ads to using the photographs only of the President and the Prime Minister and included the CJI.

The court spelt out the guidelines in response to public interest litigation filed by two non-profit organizations, Common Cause and the Centre for Public Interest Litigation, which sought court directions to restrain the central and state governments from using public funds on government advertising.

Saying governments should avoid such unproductive expenditure of public funds, a bench comprising justices Ranjan Gogoi and P.C. Ghose accepted a majority of the recommendations made by an expert committee established by a court order on 23 April 2014.

The apex court, in 2014, had constituted the committee comprising N.R. Madhava Menon, a former director of the National Judicial Academy, Bhopal; T.K. Viswanathan, former secretary general of the Lok Sabha, and lawyer Ranjit Kumar, the current solicitor general, to consider various issues surrounding government advertisements and submit a report.

The committee submitted a report to the court entitled the Government Advertisements (Content Regulation) Guidelines 2014.

The government has received a copy of ruling from the Supreme Court and is reviewing it, said Bimal Julka, the senior-most civil servant in the information and broadcasting ministry.

“All guidelines put out by the Supreme Court will be respected and implemented," said Julka.

On the recommendation over the use of photographs, he said, “It is the content and the message that is most important."

The National Democratic Alliance government has already curbed advertising expenditure, reducing it by 42.3% from 1,300 crore in FY 2013-14 to 750 crore in FY 2014-15, Julka said. He added that the government was pushing its advertising on social media websites as well as government-run websites and blogs.

The recommendations of the committee, which the court has accepted with four exceptions, mandated that government advertisements will not contain a political party’s symbol, logo or flag. Government advertisements are required to be politically neutral and must refrain from glorifying political personalities.

The court found advertisements on government functioning and achievements “permissible" as they help inform citizens. It added that the “achievements of a Government should not be a matter of publicity". The court said any advertisement that provides information, if it’s in a proper format, will be allowed.

The court differed with the committee on recommendations for the appointment of an ombudsman to oversee the implementation of the guidelines, a special performance audit of government spending and an embargo on publication of advertisements on the eve of elections.

The court directed the central government to set up a committee of three people with “unimpeachable neutrality and impartiality" which would serve as an ombudsman panel to ensure smooth implementation of the guidelines and to oversee such implementation.

The court dispensed with the need for a special performance audit for the expenditure on such political advertisements, saying that the present machinery was adequate.

It added that if these guidelines were adhered to, there would be no need to bar such advertising on the eve of elections.

The court also said that the government had to maintain the principle of fairness in disseminating information through advertisements across all media.

Government communication efforts aren’t likely to be hamstrung by the guidelines laid down by the apex court, said an advertising professional.

“Assuming your (ad) budget remains the same then all you have to do is work around compliance and maximize your output," said Vandana Das, president of the advertising agency DDB Mudra in New Delhi.

Vipul Mudgal, director of Common Cause, said in a statement that the guidelines were an important step in the direction of building accountability in the expenditure of tax payers’ money.

He said the provision of a three-member ombudsman to oversee the release of government advertisement is an idea whose time has come and which has the potential to emerge as an institution in its own right, like the Election Commission of India.

Ruling Bharatiya Janata Party leaders declined to comment on the guidelines, given that they are part of a court order.

“We honour the decision of the court but one has to see if the democratic rights of the administrative head of the states is being affected or not," Bhakta Charan Das, national spokesperson for the Congress, said.

Vidhi Choudhary, Gyan Verma and Anuja contributed to this story.

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