Report No. 255
C. Issues and Problems with Paid News and Political Advertising
7.13. A free and fair election is the cornerstone of any democracy. While free elections are determined by the absence of intimidation and coercion, a functioning secret ballot, and an enforceable right of universal adult suffrage, the concept of a "fair election.- while equally importan.- is more difficult to capture. Democracies the world over have recognised that "fairness" requires, in some sense, a level playing field. This means that the influence of money in corrupting the electoral process ought to be mitigated.
In India, this is achieved by statutory norms governing election expenditures. In this context, it is important to note that in recent times, political advertising has also witnessed the involvement of several Public Relations firms. The expenses incurred for hiring these firms are likely to go much beyond the statutory expenditure limits. This makes elections very uneven towards those who can get extensive funding and can incur the costs of political advertising, and adversely impacts the fairness of elections.
7.14. Political advertising raises several serious issues with respect to expenditure limits, truth or falsity of the claims, and the possible defamatory effects of advertisements. Some of the legal challenges posed by paid news and political advertising were manifest in the case of Ashok Chavan v. Madhavrao Kinhalkar, SLP (C) No. 29882 of 2011 where Ashok Chavan did not include the expenditure on paid news and advertisement in his election expenses.
Due to the absence of a legal regime regulating these practices, the legitimacy of paid news itself was not under contention. Instead, the contention was that he did not include the expenses on paid news in his lodged account of expenditure.
7.15. Political advertising serves a very important function of informing public. However, it increases the role of financial assistance in election campaigning and also incentivises the candidates to distort their election expenditure details. Furthermore, the problem is not just with respect to the information which is expressly shown as advertisement. The nexus between money and political journalism is manifest not only in the form of expensive advertisements but also in the form of paid editorial or news content.
7.16. In India, the most visible manifestation of the phenomenon of paid news in the electoral scene is in the form of several "packages" offered by the media houses to the candidates. Packages comprise exclusive stories, front page, negative coverage for opponent etc. Several media organisations have accepted money from politicians to provide favourable coverage.
The ECI's estimation of the worth of paid news market is Rs. 500 Crore.239 However, the phenomenon is widespread and takes various forms of undesirable nexus of candidates and media. In 2014 Lok Sabha Elections itself, around 700 cases of paid news were detected.240 This section explores some of the ways in which paid news is being practiced.
239. Vidhi Choudhary and Utpal Bhaskar, Election Commission Pegs Paid News Market at Rs. 500 Crore, LIVE MINT, 2nd February 2013,
7.17. The coverage is sold in the name of a "package" which is offered in proportion to the money the interested party is willing to pay.241 On an average, each candidate hires two employees to write news stories about him which are printed without editing and sought to be passed off as independent editorial content.242 The newspapers exaggerate the winning chances of the candidates and the support they are getting from the public. However, there is no credit line to these news items and the font used is often different from the other news items.243
241. Press Council of India, Sub-Committee Report on Paid News, at 25,
242. Ibid., at 22.
243. Press Council of India, "Paid News": How Corruption In The Indian Media Undermines Democracy, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Kalimekolan Sreenivas Reddy,(1st April, 2010), at 25,
7.18. Candidates pay huge amounts of money in a 'package' deal for cooked up favourable information to create a false atmosphere for influencing electorate.244 A package generally comprises rate cards for coverage of specific political activities during the campaign. For example, there are different rate cards for covering campaign speeches, covering door to door campaign, showing skewed survey results etc.245
Channels and newspapers have stated that they were not willing to provide air-time to a candidate's campaign unless he is willing to pay the amount the channel demands.246 The phenomenon of paid news not just involves the printing of news, but also rejecting or delaying coverage.247 The impact of this is twofold: first, as discussed above, it affects the fairness of elections by tying a candidate's prospects to his financial ability to remunerate the media for coverage. And second, it affects the public's right to know, which is an aspect of their constitutional right under Article 19(1)(a).
244. Dr. Madabhushi Sridhar, Tyranny Over The Mind: Paid News As Electoral Crime, 7 Nalsar L.R. (2013)
245. PCI Sub-committee Report, supra note 241, at 26
246. Maseeh Rahman, 'Paid News' Scandal Hits Major Newspapers, The Guardian, 4th Jan, 2010
247. Paranjay Guha Thakurta and K. Srinivas Reddy, Blurring Boundaries Between News and Advertisement, 2 Nalsar Media L.R. 153 (2011).
7.19. The right to kno.- and, by extension, the right to accurate information on the basis of which to make an informed political choic.- is severely undermined by the phenomenon of paid news and undisclosed political advertisement. In some instances, for example, newspapers have published conflicting news items on the same page showing the lack of editorial consistency or control over the news items.
In one such case, a news paper published a news item in favour of one of the candidates with the headline that a candidate is "getting the support of each and every section of the society". On the same page, there was another news item arguing that there will be a triangular fight in that constituency. Both these reports appeared on the same page and were credited to a reporter of the newspaper.248
Furthermore, in many assembly elections, the same newspaper has predicted the win of two opposing parties in a single state in two different editions. For instance, the Panipat edition of Dainik Jagran published a news item on page 9 of its edition dated October 8, 2009, that was in favour of the electoral prospects of the Congress. This news item criticised leaders of non-Congress parties, and stated that they would not be able to make a mark in the elections because the Congress had done very good work for every section of society.
This news item added that candidates of the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC) would not be able to harm. The Ludhiana edition of the same newspaper, on the other hand, published a news item in favour of the HJC on October 11, 2009, with a headline that stated that the HJC would play the role of king or king-maker after the elections.249
248. Mrinal Pandey, Editorial Departmnet Bypassed, 2 NALSAR MEDIA L.R. 169 (2011). See also Excerpts from PCI Report on Paid News,
249. Thakurta, supra note 247, at 172.
7.20. Lastly, the seriousness of these issues is exacerbated by the magnitude to which they have become a systemic feature of elections. The entrenched nature of such practices is demonstrated by the fact that some candidates, in fact, thought it to be legitimate political expenditure and included in their official expenses for the election. For instance, a candidate had formally represented to the ECI that he had paid a newspaper to publish favourable "news" about himself and had included the payment in his official expenditure statement.250
The systemic and structural aspects of paid news and political advertising are also revealed by the fact that news items have even begun to carry names of advertising agencies. For example, the Prabhat Khabar, a newspaper published from Ranchi, published articles praising various candidates before the Parliamentary elections but placed the following line on top of each such item "PK Media Marketing Initiative".251
250. Survey Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists, Submissions made to the PCI.
251. Selling News- Selected Anecdotes, Hindi Press, 2 Nalsar Media L.R. 169 (2011).
7.21. Instances of paid news and political advertising have been prominent enough to have attracted the attention of legal authorities, as well as the ECI. For example, when one legislator failed to include spending on paid news in her official poll accounts (involving favourable coverage which was dressed up as news in two Hindi dailies, Dainik Jaagran and Amar Ujala, during her 2007 election), she was penalised for not reflecting it in the expenditure.252
The ECI also saw an involvement in these issues when, following complaints from Prafulla Mahanta and Nagaon Nagarik Forum, a Nagaon based NGO, The ECI officials sealed Nagaon Talks Channel, as it was owned by Congress MLA Rockybul Hussain who was contesting from Samguri constituency.253
The Guwahati High Court later ordered the EC to reopen the news channel.254 On April 30, 2009, the Varanasi edition of the Hindi-language Hindustan, published by HT Media, published a front page story with a headline that suggested there was a wave in favour of the Congress party on the day of elections. On the following day, the paper issued an apology and clarified to the readers that it was paid content.255
252. Nalsar, Paid News as Electoral Crime, at 13.
253. Anindita Banerjee and Nisha Gigani, Paid News- Economics Rules, Student's Research Global Media Journa.- Indian Edition/ Summer Issue / June 2011, at 3
254. Guwahati High Court Ordered Reopening of Nagaon Talks, 3rd April 2011
255. PCI Report, supra note 241, at 43.
7.22. These instances highlight the ways in which paid news and disguised political advertisements are growing deep into the process of democratic elections in India. The amount of money being spent on these practices has risen at exponential levels. Appendix I mentions the number of identified instances of paid news over last few assembly and general election. The unethical practices of paid news and disguised political advertising have reached the alarming level not just in a few cases of national media, but also in the regional media.