Covering elections

News space on sale

Print edition : May 30, 2014

Mediapersons outside Parliament House in New Delhi on February 18. Photo: Monica Tiwari

Political parties flush with funds provided by corporate houses are winning over journalists, and some news organisations are creating packages for election coverage, making the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ all pervasive.

THE credibility of journalism and journalists has been greatly undermined by the scourge of cash for coverage, a much-abhorred sickness in the profession worldwide. News space on television, radio and newsprint is compromised with impunity with blatant advertising parading as news. In India, it especially intensifies during the election season. It is an open secret. But it continues unabated, mainly because the nexus between politicians and corporate houses ensures that the malpractice does not die down and partly because journalists themselves shy away from admitting to this problem and instead feel the need to go on the defensive.

Despite overwhelming evidence, there are no laws to curb paid news before, during or after the elections, Anil Verma of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) said. “It is well known that political parties are well-funded by corporate/business houses who also might have stakes in various media houses. Hence, the nexus between corporate houses and political parties, especially during the elections, cannot be overruled,” he said. There is a cap (Rs.70 lakh) on a candidate’s election expenses, but there is no limit on a political party’s expenditure.

The ADR has found that this loophole is often used to falsify reports on expenditure. According to its report titled “Comparison of Declaration of Election Expenses of Political Parties and their MPs, Lok Sabha 2009”, of the 277 Members of Parliament belonging to national parties, 75 declared that they received Rs.7,46,58,901 (Rs.7.46 crore) from their respective parties, but the national parties declared that 138 MPs were given Rs.14,19,12,228 (Rs.14.19 crore). Of the 123 MPs to whom the Congress said it had given lump sum payment towards election expenditure, 81 MPs, including Subodh Kant Sahay, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Manish Tewari, Sachin Pilot, P. Chidambaram and Beni Prasad Verma, marked “nil” in the declaration submitted to the electoral offices in the form of sworn affidavits. Pranab Mukherjee, who the party declared was given Rs.15 lakh, mentioned that he did not receive any lump sum payment.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) maintained that it did not financially support even one winning candidate, but 25 of its MPs declared that they had received a total of Rs.2,75,49,383 (Rs.2.75 crore) from the party.

Anil Verma called for a ceiling on the election expenditure of political parties so that there is a level playing field. “The parties usually submit their expenditure reports three months after the election results are announced. This does not help the common man to track the parties’ expenditure. The ADR has suggested that the parties submit their expense statements more frequently, right from the date of the announcement of elections,” he said.

On May 5, in a significant verdict, the Supreme Court upheld the Election Commission’s (E.C.) right to inquire into the allegation of paid news and disqualify a candidate if the expenses declared by him/her were not reflected in the returns. Dismissing an appeal by former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan in the “Paid News” case, the Bench comprising Justices Surinder Singh Nijjar and Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifulla asked the E.C. to hold day-to-day hearing and decide the complaint against Chavan in 45 days. The case pertained to the incorrect election expenses filed by Chavan in the 2009 Assembly elections. He was elected from the Bhokar seat in Nanded district. Independent candidate Madhav Kinhalkar filed a complaint with the E.C., accusing Chavan of misstating his election expenses and getting paid news published in several newspapers. Chavan denied the allegations. Usually, when the E.C. points out an instance of paid news to a candidate, the candidate admits to it and declares it in his/her expenses.

The court also dismissed the appeals of former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda and Uttar Pradesh Member of the Legislative Assembly Umlesh Yadav. The E.C. had disqualified Umlesh Yadav, the wife of liquor baron and politician D.P. Yadav, in 2011 for suppressing information on paid news and filing incorrect election expenses. She had contested and won the Assembly elections in 2007.

While the Supreme Court judgment will go a long way in curbing misinformation and non-reporting of paid news, it will not help to curb the menace itself. Paid news is not an electoral offence and becomes legal if declared. It must be noted that Umlesh Yadav was disqualified on the grounds of non-declaration and not for the practice of paid news.

Press Council’s role

The E.C. does not have jurisdiction over media houses and so it expects the Press Council of India (PCI) to deal with the problem. The PCI was set up by Parliament as a statutory, quasi-judicial body “for the purpose of preserving the freedom of the press and of maintaining and improving the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India”. The PCI can pull up media organisations for taking cash for news coverage. On June 9, 2009, the PCI set up a subcommittee consisting of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Kalimekolam Sreenivas Reddy “to examine the phenomenon of paid news observed during the last Lok Sabha elections… based on inputs received from the members and others”. They established in their 71-page report, based mainly on circumstantial evidence, that the practice was widespread.

The evidence provided in the report was perhaps unpalatable to the PCI, which tried to keep it away from the public eye. Instead, it set up a 12-member committee and presented a 13-page report. It was only much later, in order to comply with the direction of the Central Information Commission order dated September 19, 2011, that the PCI uploaded the report on its website with the disclaimer that it does not accept the report of the subcommittee and that it “was only relied upon, inter-alia, for information for drawing up the final report”.

The subcommittee’s report states: “The phenomenon of paid news goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media companies. It has become pervasive, structured and highly organised and, in the process, is undermining democracy in India. Large sections of society, including political personalities, those working in the media and others, have already expressed their unhappiness and concern about the pernicious influence of such malpractices.”

A district Media Certification & Monitoring Committee (MCMC) was created under the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to clear political advertising at the district level. The E.C. entrusted the committee with the additional job of looking into instances of paid news. Former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi said: “News organisations create packages, for Rs.20 lakh we will do so many stories and write so many editorials. If you give Rs.40 lakh I will also keep writing scandals about your opponent and demolish him. And if you say I don’t want to get into this, they will black you out in the least and write against you in the worst. So people started falling in line. Every political party has been a victim of this, which is why they come to us. We have recommended that this [paid news] should be made a criminal offence so that the giver and the taker are held equally guilty and punished with two years of rigorous imprisonment.”

The E.C. received 2,000 notices in which the majority of the candidates admitted to having paid for news coverage and apologised for not accounting for it.

Jatin Desai of the Maharashtra State MCMC said the committee received four appeals from Milind Deora, Sanjay Nirupam, Vishwajeet Kadam and Anil Shirole. Deora and Nirupam, however, said they did not want to pursue the appeals. They now have to report this expenditure. The other two argued that they did not indulge in paid news. Desai admitted there was no provision to give a notice to media houses. “The only thing we can do is write to the PCI and the News Broadcasters Association. The E.C. alone cannot totally eradicate this evil of paid news. It is the responsibility of the journalist community to see that such things do not occur. It is also against the principle of level playing field. People must speak up and put pressure on media houses to speak the truth. Editors must take a stand.” Desai said candidates of major parties would invariably spend more than Rs.3 crore, but they presented their expenses in such a way that paid news was not accounted for.

CORPORATE DONORS

The ADR analysed the donations declared by national parties between 2004-05 and 2011-12 and divided the donors sector-wise on the basis of their business interests. It found an overwhelming dependence on corporate houses for political funding. The ADR found that 75 per cent of the sources of funding of political parties was not known and that various sectors of business houses donated Rs.378.89 crore, constituting 87 per cent of the total contribution (Rs.435.87 crore) from known sources of political parties, between 2004 and 2012. The BJP received the maximum donation of Rs.192.47 crore from 1,334 donors from the corporate/business sector, followed by the Congress, which received Rs.172.25 crore from 418 donors from the corporate/business sector. Ninety-two per cent of the Congress’ voluntary contributions is from corporate/business houses while 85 per cent of the BJP’s contribution is from corporate/business houses. The top donors for the Congress were General Electoral Trust of the Aditya Birla Group (Rs.36.41 crore), Torrent Power Ltd (Rs.11.85 crore) and Bharti Electoral Trust of Bharti Group (Rs.11 crore). The BJP got donations from the General Electoral Trust of the Aditya Birla Group (Rs.26.57 crore), Torrent Power Ltd (Rs.13 crore) and Asianet V Holding Pvt Ltd (Rs.10 crore).

The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was funded by Ambuja Cement (Rs.1 crore), Hindustan Construction Co. Ltd (Rs.1 crore) and Infina Finance Pvt. Ltd (Rs.1 crore). The Communist Party of India received Rs.11 lakh from 13 corporate donors while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) got Rs.1.78 crore from 108 corporate/business houses. Political parties are not permitted to accept contributions from foreign companies or companies controlled in India by foreign companies, but the ADR report found that the Congress and the BJP together accepted Rs.29.26 crore between 2003-04 and 2011-12 from foreign companies. The ADR has filed a petition in the Delhi High Court seeking action against the Congress and the BJP.

Justice Markandey Katju, PCI Chairman, set up a four-member Election Coverage Monitoring (ECM) Committee in the wake of reports of paid news during the Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh in 2012. The committee, with Rajeev Ranjan Nag as convener, and Neeraj Bajpai, Sondeep Shanker, Kalyan Barooah and a local journalist Amarendra Jhawas as members, was tasked to undertake an extensive tour of Gujarat during the 2012 Assembly elections to investigate and scrutinise incidents of paid news or any other violation of press freedom. During its interactions in Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot and Surat, the team found instances of paid news. For instance, a particular publication of Gujarat Guardian, which was launched a few months before the 2012 elections, caught the team’s attention, because it had predicted the victory of two rival candidates on the same page. A news item in Sandesh stated that a particular candidate would lose the election for the third consecutive time. But it became clear after studying the reports published in the newspaper and conducting an inquiry that the paper was partial to one political party.

At least 126 confirmed cases of paid news were identified by the MCMC and the State’s election authority on the basis of the guidelines issued by the E.C. “This is indicative of how a section of the media operated and was used by the political parties/candidates. Moreover, 61 candidates admitted to having paid for news items in electronic and print media. A thorough and in-depth analysis of each news item carried in the print media and telecast in channels would substantiate the observation made by the PCI team that paid news cases were rampant in Gujarat,” the report on the PCI website states.

In this background, the stand taken by Lokmat, the Marathi language newspaper, is worth mentioning. Before the commencement of the elections to the 16th Lok Sabha, its management issued advertisements in the paper stating that it will not publish paid news. The paper even provided a telephone number that candidates could call to inform its office if any journalist from the newspaper asked them for money. It also held meetings with reporters, writers and editors explaining the stand of the paper. “We have taken a stand that we will not entertain anyone. We are also scrutinising ads to keep a check on extraordinary eulogies or allegations. The reporters are also feeling relieved as there is no undue pressure on them from anywhere,” said Vasant Bhosale, resident editor of Lokmat in Kolhapur, who has spent 28 years in the profession. Paid news on television had a greater impact on the psyche of middle-class voters than in the print medium and some candidates were taking full advantage of it this time, he added.

Call it envelope journalism or by the more modern name ATM journalism, cash for coverage is a serious illness plaguing the profession worldwide. “And it highlights one of the paradoxes of the profession. For all the power journalism may have to topple governments and expose the inner secrets of giant multinationals, it can also be an exceptionally fragile institution, vulnerable to the petty greed or strained economic circumstances of a single reporter or editor,” states journalist Bill Ristow in “Cash for Coverage: Bribery of Journalists Around the World, A Report to the Centre for International Media Assistance”.

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