S Y QURAISHI , ELECTION COMMISSIONER , ELECTION COMMISSION OF INDIA IN THE INDIAN EXPRESS
Over the decades, the approach to news has changed quite a bit. But these changes have largely related to presentation and formats. In the increasingly competitive media world, we have come across terms like morning news, evening news, prime time news, headline news, latest news and more recently, breaking news. But paid news? This coinage is the epitome of anti-news. Paid news is downright unethical, and sinister. The malaise has now gone deep, and cuts across print and electronic, regional and national, vernacular and English media.
We at the Election Commission are seriously concerned. Many of us have been dealing with the problem of surrogate advertising for a while. Some instructions are in place to prevent stealthy advertising in favour of or against candidates. The success in this has only been moderate. But the new camouflage for advertising is “news”. To some extent, the menace has played out its role in manipulating real estate and the stock market; but this is not my official headache. We feel directly concerned with the infiltration of this evil into the election arena. We realise with all seriousness the impact of this malpractice. It is against free and fair polls. It could derail democracy.
Paid news is not free speech. The commission is concerned about the undue influence that paid news can create in the mind of the voter. The voter’s right to correct and unbiased information needs protection. Our second concern is that paid news hoodwinks the enforcement of the expenditure ceiling, a key component in election management with particular importance for a level playing field.
I am happy that most political parties are speaking against paid news. I am even happier that there is a conspicuous uprising against it within the media. Not surprisingly, the protest is led by women and men from the editorial desk, because it is their space and their freedom which is in maximum danger. It is heartening to note that the government and Parliament are also seriously engaged to find a redressal. The churning is healthy and holds out hope.
Friends in media and politics have suggested that the Election Commission is powerful enough to deal with this problem. Well, we have some powers defined by the Constitution, acts of Parliament and judicial pronouncements. We have to work within these. Our control runs only during the election period and applies generally to political parties and candidates. Politicians are most powerful. Members of Parliament alone have the power to legislate to bring the culprits of paid news to book. But, it is the media, which, to my mind retains absolute power, derived from absolute freedom. In my estimate, the problem of paid news is best addressed by self-regulation that lends legitimacy to absolute power anywhere. The commission would again call upon politicians and media to press the delete button on paid news through active self-regulation.
Of course, this would require consensus building. Fortunately, in our country, a good cause or a good piece of legislation brings even opposite camps together. Our model code of conduct during the elections is a shining example of restrictions voluntarily accepted by all political parties. This is a unique Indian institution that makes election managers across the world envious. Can there be a code to check the destabilising activity of paid news?
Paid news is like a snake whose hood is down and tail underground. It is not easy to pull it out. There is circumstantial evidence of all type, but little proof. I am happy that the Press Council is finding ways to deal with the element of deceit in paid news. The commission has lent support to their consultations and will do more, if necessary.
As I have often said, in the multi-dimensional mandate of election management, every problem has a solution, but often a good solution leads to a new problem.
After serious consideration of the public damage caused by some campaign methods, the commission put some restrictions on wall writings, hoardings, loudspeakers etc. The question as suggested by some is, has the strict enforcement of defacement laws led to this worse sickness of paid news in the election arena? More importantly, has it denied a level playing field to those candidates and political parties, who by force or by will, are not accomplices in paid news?
In India, the media is one of the strengths of the Election Commission. With all responsibility, I have to state that media has all too often been our eyes and ears in the conduct of elections. I fervently wish that the alliance between the Election Commission, political parties and the media, which fortifies the world’s largest democracy does not weaken in the shadow of paid news.
The writer is an election commissioner.