Repeated publication of articles praising the achievements of a specific candidate in an election amounts to "paid news" according the Election Commission (EC), The Hindu reported.
The EC made this observation in a Special Leave Petition filed in the Supreme Court appealing against a decision of the Delhi High Court given on 18 May to set aside the disqualification of the BJP-led Madhya Pradesh government's cabinet minister, Narottam Mishra.
In the petition, the EC also asked the court to declare whether it amounts to "paid news" if widely circulated daily newspapers cover statements issued by, and in the name of, a candidate that are not only laudatory of his or her record and achievements but also are a direct appeal to voters by the candidate. It argued that politicians cannot say that spewing "motivated propaganda" is part of their fundamental right to free speech.
The EC on June 23 last year had disqualified Mr. Mishra for not filing the accounts for money spent as election expenses on news items. When Mishra appealed against this, a Division Bench of the Delhi HC had concluded that the BJP leader was merely exercising his fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. Mishra is a Cabinet Minister in the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in charge of public relations and other portfolios.
"If such motivated propaganda is allowed in the garb of free speech during the election period, candidates with a strong network of connections and undefined relationships will exploit their sphere of influence in society and will have the unequal advantage of encashing such silent services," the EC, represented by advocate Amit Sharma, said in the above cited special leave petition.
The EC's National Level Committee on Paid News found that five newspapers, with a wide circulation, had published 42 news items that were "biased and one-sided and aimed at furthering the prospects of Mr. Mishra". Some of the reports were advertisements in favour of him. The committee concluded that the items fitted the definition of "paid news".