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Newspapers are the medium that aren’t supposed to lie. Sure, they may sensationalize the news to appeal to a larger audience and even those who criticise the front page story do read about celebrity scandal, but publishing false or ‘bought news’  is downright wrong. India is one of the only countries in the world which enjoys an increase in the circulation of newspapers while western nations are struggling to maintain their readership. Bearing in mind that more and more people are reading newspapers everyday, from the auto driver to the businessman, the editorial board of the newspaper has the duty to maintain standards of objective journalism. The media proudly proclaims itself as the fourth estate, the ‘watchdog’ of society and the government, but it is rapidly degenerating into a paid advertisement for those with the money. India has about 70,000 newspapers and atleast 450 TV channels. The power of the media to influence public opinion is increasing. However, the General Elections 2009 brought out the shocking truth : that newspapers and TV channels were selling coverage packages to political candidates for thousands and lakhs of rupees.

These weren’t just small media houses out to make a quick buck. The Times of India and Dainik Bhaskar, newspapers which practically define our nation were offering positive coverage to candidates based on their ability to pay. In Andhra Pradesh, the popular Eenadu paper in Telugu ran an entire anti-Congress supplement, pointing out its failures through the years. Newspapers offered packages for everything ranging  from positive coverage to ‘not negative’ coverage, negative coverage of rival parties and extensive interviews with colour photos. All this given for a price and sometimes the purchase of thousands of copies by the candidate.

P.Sainath exposed this in his article in the Hindu in October 2009, ‘The medium, message and the money’, sparking an instant reaction and a debate that would last for months. Newspapers are allowed to advertise political campaigns, but the label ‘advertorial’ was expected to be typed firmly across the page. Here, however, candidates were passing press releases to the papers which would print them word for word without verifying the truth of the information and leaving the word ‘ADVERTISEMENT’ out of it. A newspaper catering to rival candidates was caught predicting the win of both on its front page.

The first word that comes to mind is ‘unethical’, but this act is also a violation of the Constitution and Press Council Norms of Journalistic Conduct, 1996.

The Press Council norms state that the duty of the press is to give objective reports and is not to exaggerate reports about any one candidate or party during elections. The Hindi paper, Nav Bharat carried 12 pages only on Ashok Chavan during the State Assembly period, openly flouting these rules. The press is supposed to refrain from publishing false statements in regard to the candidate’s conduct, and yet papers were printing press releases without checking their authenticity. The most blatant violation of these norms was the acceptance of financial inducements to project a candidate or party. Here, the press was offering packages for coverage ranging from Rs 50,000 to more than 20 lakh. Congress MP from Delhi, Sandeep Dikshit was approached by a TV channel which offered him an hour of live coverage for 2.5 lakh, even promising to arrange crowds for the campaign. Many political candidates bowed down to the pressure of the media fearing the paying rivals would have an edge over them; a candidate from of the Loksatta Party from Warangal shelled out Rs. 50,000 only to be beaten by those who paid higher for visibility.

Constitutional violations include that of Section 100 of The Representation of The People Act, 1951, under which the General elections may be declared void if the allegations of paid journalism are proven to have adversely affected the candidate’s chances of winning or affected the prospects of a rival candidate. This has enormous implications, bearing in mind that elections can cost as much as Rs 1000 crore (the 1999 Lok Sabha elections cost Rs. 880 crore) and require a huge amount of manpower.

According to the same Act, once the corruption is proved, the candidate is disqualified from the election process and the accomplices to this practice lose their vote. The Election Commission has the machinery to implement this law, disqualify offending candidates and taking away the votes of the journalists who helped them. Yet none of this has been done because the Election Commission claims it does not have the manpower to stop the corruption across the country. Even as candidates openly admit they were offered election coverage for a price, none of the newspapers involved were booked under these charges.

However, the press isn’t the only institution to blame. Political parties have taken undue advantage of their money power and clout, actually shelling out these sums as part of their campaign. Under Election Commission rules, candidates can spend upto Rs. 25 lakh in larger constituencies and 10-25 lakh in smaller ones. Although it is obvious that most parties spend far in excess, the Supreme Court has recently come down hard on the candidates. However, expenditure from sources other than the candidate and his agent are not added to his documented expenditure by law, making it possible for ‘friends and followers’ to vastly inflate the party coffers. Meanwhile, worthy candidates who do not have the money to afford lavish campaigns and splashy news ads are being left out of the race due to no fault of their own. Ashok Chavan , Chief Minister of Maharashtra came under much scrutiny when after the publication of Sainath’s article in the Hindu, he was accused of paying for positive reports in three dailies during State Assembly elections. On a complaint from the BJP, the Election Commission investigated charges that he had paid much more than the Rs 11,000 he had claimed to spend on the campaign. However, Mr. Chavan firmly pointed out that his expenditure had been approved by the District Election Officer, leaving the authorities in a bind.

Ethical journalists still do exist in the country, which desire to root out this evil after exposing it. The Press Council of India and the Editors Guild have come together, the latter setting up an ethics committee to probe the issue. They will suggest measures to the Election Commission to curb this problem, however, will it really have the power to stop this problem across 543 constituencies?

The problem is stretching from politics to the corporates and the day may soon arrive when the newspaper appearing before us will just be one big advertisement, leading our opinions astray. It’s a dangerous situation when we are selectively informed. The press has an obligation to provide the society with neutral, balanced, researched information rather than the whims of moneybags.

On the day it forgets this, the media will cease to be the watchdog of the nation and become the lapdog of the nation.

Vrinda Manocha

[Image courtesy: http://blogs.reuters.com/india//files/2009/12/cr_mega_247_indian%20media.jpg]

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