News articles where a political leader appeals for votes in his favour by boasting his record and achievements should be treated as paid news, the Election Commission (EC) has told the Supreme Court.
Challenging the Delhi High Court verdict quashing the EC's decision to disqualify Madhya Pradesh Minister Narottam Mishra for three years on charges of paid news, the poll panel claimed that the high court erred in restricting its role in taking action to curb the menace of paid news.
"Where there appears in daily newspapers having wide circulation, statements issued by and in the name of a candidate which are not only laudatory of his record and achievements, but also are direct appeal to voters by the candidate himself, would it be erroneous for the Election Commission to treat such statements as: not news, but paid-news?" the EC said in the appeal and asked the top court to examine the issue as such questions arise frequently during elections.
It said when a candidate is accountable for maintaining his poll expenses within the prescribed limit, the onus of establishing that beneficial services being rendered to him during the campaign period are not at his behest would rest on him.
He must have proof that he distanced himself from such charitable services or news at the relevant time and not post facto, the EC said in its appeal challenging the high court's May 18 judgement.
"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 would exploit their sphere of influence in society and would have the unequal advantage of encashing such silent services," the poll panel said.
"If 'paid news' can only be determined on the basis of irrefutable documentary evidence, the subterfuge would gain uncontrollable currency and would be a major setback to the effort to curb the practice of monetising the influence that candidates could wield due to their status and network in society, thus deriving an unfair advantage over other candidates," it said.
As an interim order, the EC has sought staying the operation of the high court's May 18 order by which it had allowed the plea of Mr Mishra, the state Minister of Public Relations, Water Resources and Parliamentary Affairs, challenging the poll panel's June 23, 2017 decision disqualifying him.
The commission said the conduct of eager supporters whose extensive coverage, as in this case, being dubbed as freedom of expression cannot be termed as news because 'News' is expected to be "unbiased" and characterised by "dispassionateness of coverage and proportionate space to other contenders".
"It is thus inescapable that such 'unholy alliance' can be uncovered only by a thorough inquiry and restricting the scope of the EC in such matters by not allowing it to go into the 'contents' of such paid news would be like allowing it to take a pound of flesh without an ounce of blood and will prove to be a severe body blow in the efforts to check this growing menace that will further lead to corruption and inequality in election campaigning," the EC said in the appeal seeking to set aside the high court's order.
The panel said it took the decision to disqualify Mr Mishra after its paid news committee concluded that 42 news items/ articles were "biased, one-sided and aimed at furthering the prospects" of Mr Mishra.
While some of the reported items were direct appeals, others read like advertisement in favour of the candidate and the committee had come to the conclusion that the articles/items published in various newspapers appeared to be surrogate advertisements and fit the existing definition of paid news as given by the Press Council of India.
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