The issue of paid news has been debated for a long time, most recently during the 2012 Gujarat assembly elections, the Jindal Steel-Zee News dispute and disqualification of a sitting UP MLA by the Election Commission of India (ECI) in October 2011. The Standing Committee on Information Technology recently submitted its report on the “Issues Related to Paid News”. The report discusses the definition of paid news, reasons for its proliferation, existing mechanisms to address the problem and recommendations to control it. Need for comprehensive definition of paid news The Press Council of India (PCI) defines paid news as any news or analysis appearing in print or electronic media for consideration in cash or kind. The Committee acknowledged challenges in defining and establishing incidence of paid news, citing new manifestations like advertisements disguised as news, denial of coverage to select electoral candidates, private deals between media houses and corporates and the rise in paid content. Hence, it asked the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MoIB) to formulate a comprehensive legal definition of ‘paid news’ and suggest measures for usage of ‘circumstantial evidence’ in establishing incidence of paid news. Reasons for rise in incidence of paid news The Committee identified corporatisation of media, desegregation of ownership and editorial roles, decline in autonomy of editors/journalists and poor wage levels of journalists as key reasons for the rise in incidence of paid news. It urged the MoIB to ensure periodic review of the editor/journalist autonomy and wage conditions. It also recommended mandatory disclosure of ‘private treaties’ and details of advertising revenue by the media houses. Need for empowered regulators and stricter punitive provisions The Committee observed that statutory regulators like the PCI and Electronic Media Monitoring Centre (EMMC) lack adequate punitive powers while self-regulatory industry bodies like the News Broadcasting Standards Authority have even failed to take cognisance of the problem. The PCI and self-regulatory bodies are also plagued by conflict of interest since a majority of their members are media-owners. The Committee recommended the establishment of either a single regulatory body for both print and electronic media or setting-up a statutory body for the electronic media on the lines of the PCI. Such regulator(s) should have the power to take strong action against offenders and should not include media owners as members. It highlighted the need for stricter punitive provisions to control paid news and sought further empowerment of the ECI to deal with cases of paid news during elections. Committee critical of government’s inaction The Committee censured the MoIB for its failure to establish a strong mechanism to check the spread of paid news. It criticised the government for dithering on important policy initiatives, citing the lack of action on various recommendations of the PCI and ECI. Previously, the PCI had sought amendments to make its directions binding on the government authorities and to bring the electronic media under its purview. Similarly, the ECI recommended inclusion of indulgence by an electoral candidate in paid news as a corrupt practice and publication of such paid news as an electoral offence. The Committee also expressed concern that the MoIB and self-regulatory bodies have not conducted any study to evaluate the mechanism adopted by other countries to tackle the problem of paid news. For a PRS summary of the Standing Committee Report, see here.
In April last year the government had notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules, 2011 (IT Rules) under the Information Technology Act, 2000. The IT Rules are listed for discussion in Rajya Sabha today in pursuance of a motion moved by Mr. P. Rajeeve [CPI(M)]. The motion seeks to annul these Rules and recommends that Lok Sabha also concur with the motion. The IT Rules require intermediaries (internet service providers, blogging sites like Blogger and Wordpress, and cyber cafés) to take certain action. Intermediaries are required to enter into agreements with their users prohibiting publication of certain content. Content that cannot be published includes anything that is ‘harmful to minors in any way’, ‘blasphemous’, ‘encouraging money laundering’ etc. This raises three issues. Some of the categories of content prohibited for publication are ambiguous and undefined. For instance, ‘grossly harmful’ and ‘blasphemous’ content are not defined. Publication of certain content prohibited under the IT Rules, is currently not an offences under other laws. Their publication is in fact allowed in other forms of media, such as newspapers. Newspapers are bound by Press Council Norms. These Norms do not prohibit publication of all the content specified under the IT Rules. For instance, while these Norms require newspapers to show respect to all religions and their gods, they do not prohibit publication of blasphemy. However, under the IT Rules blasphemy is prohibited. This might lead to a situation, where articles that may be published in newspapers legally, may not be reproduced on the internet for example in the e-paper or on the newspaper’s website. Prohibition of publication of certain content under the IT Rules may also violate the right to freedom of speech. Under Article 19(2) of the Constitution restrictions on the right to freedom of speech may be imposed in the interest of the State’s sovereignty, integrity, security and friendly relations with other States, public order, morality, decency, contempt of court, and for protection against defamation. The content prohibited under the IT Rules may not meet the requirement of Article 19(2). This may impinge on the right to freedom of speech and expression. Further, anyone can complain against such content to the intermediary. The intermediary is required to remove content if it falls within the description specified in the IT Rules. In the event the intermediary decides not to remove the content, it may be held liable. This could lead to a situation where, in order to minimise the risk of liability, the intermediary may block more content than it is required. This may imply adverse consequences for freedom of expression on the internet. PRS’s detailed analysis of the IT Rules may be accessed here.