Former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, in 2009 Assembly election had won from Bhokar seat in Nanded. His opponent, independent candidate Madhav Kinhalkar, filed a complaint with the Election Commission, accusing him of hiding expenses on a ‘paid’ supplement titled Ashok Parva (The era of Ashok) in a leading Marathi daily. Chavan and the daily’s management denied the allegation saying that the supplement was not a paid one. The Election Commission probed into Kinhalkar’s allegations. The Delhi High Court in 2010 declined Mr. Chavan’s plea seeking the stay of the Election Commission proceedings. He then moved the apex court in November 2011. By his own account, candidate Chavan spent less than Rs. 7 lakh on his election campaign overall during the Assembly polls. The spending limit imposed on contestants is Rs. 10 lakh. Section 77 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 stipulates that candidates must submit their campaign expenses accounts to the district election officer within 30 days of the declaration of results.
Ashok Chavan spent a mere Rs. 5,379 on newspaper advertisements during the recent State Assembly election, by his own claim. And he spent another Rs. 6,000 on cable television ads. These figures are clearly at odds with the unprecedented media coverage the former Chief Minister got during the election campaign. The Hindu has gathered 47 full newspaper pages, many of them in colour, focused exclusively on Mr. Chavan, his leadership, his party and government. These appeared in large newspapers, including one ranking amongst India’s highest circulation dailies. However, they were not marked as advertisements.
Chavan filed petition but that was rejected. The Supreme Court said that the Election Commission was empowered to inquire into the allegation of paid news if the expenses for the same are not being reflected in the election return filed by the candidate. Having held that the Commission can inquire into the allegation, the court dismissed the plea by Mr. Chavan, who had challenged the Delhi High Court order, holding that the commission can inquire into the allegations of paid news if same was not disclosed by the candidate in his election expenses returns. The court said that the Commission will hold day-to-day hearing and decide the complaint in 45 days.
We are discussing here illegitimate advertisement during political campaign, but the malice has spread beyond that. Recently, I have watched the electronic media overtly planting interview and news items for promoting films and cinema. Perhaps, there are no legal remedies to these sins. These days, journalism is on sale, particularly prior to the General and Assembly elections. The dilemma here is who should bell the cat? ECI blindly accepted the expenditure. There officers do not inquire about the ‘paid’ editorial coverage. It will be interesting to know that the findings of the Committee appointed by the Press Council of India to inquire into the sordid affair is also not effective that much. The participation of some large-circulation Indian Language newspapers are defaming the fourth estate.
Patriotic citizens must form groups similar to some NGOs to bring pressure on the PCI, the ECI, MPs, MLAs and the on the Editors’ Guild to do their duties in favour of nation’s interests. Voters must be inspired not only to vote in large numbers, but they should also vote after studying about the candidates.
The groups must hold periodical debates on issues of nation’s interests involving as many citizens as possible. Most of the people say that politics is the last resort of the scoundrel. They must be told that because you people are feeling shy to discuss politics, that is why situation here is so. The groups must start a newspaper on a co-operative basis which should inspire people to participate in that. The groups should watch and prevent the sale of journalism. Senior educated citizens must take a lead in forming such groups. The groups must persuade governments to see that newspapers devote at least 10 per cent of its space for readers’ views rather misusing all the space for imposing managements’ or editors’ views on readers. Newspapers must be made to follow a code of conduct. At present, there is a code of conduct, but the PCI, often, does not strictly enforce it. The groups must watch the PCI and see to it that newspapers violating the norms and journalistic code of conduct are refused advertisements by governments. These are inherent problems of democracy. People will try to en-cash every situation. Media too is managed by members of the public only. With the introduction of so many channels and the stiff competition to gain viewership, many are going unethical.
From the moment, media has gone into the hands of people with vested interests; journalists have sold their soul to the managements and written against a political party or a politician as dictated by owners. Now, the change is that the journalists have started making money by writing who ever sponsor such stories. The same journalist resorts to write contradictory stories. One can see this foul play.
The Election Commission should put down rules about what disclosures must accompany paid articles. In a way, similar to how foodstuffs are packaged with nutrition information. For example, some language likes, “this article was paid by the XYZ party” must appear before the byline. Then readers of the articles can judge for themselves, whether they want to believe what is being written. Not only in the 2009 elections but also in the elections held earlier, the misuse of man, money and muscle power were taken to the notice of the ECI. 2014 election is all about paid news, pre fixed interviews and promotions. Here media are ‘for sale’ and ready to do anything and everything to promote those leaders and parties who could satisfy their financial demands. This has proven to be an era of buying media and building leaders.