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.
Media in India is mostly self-regulated. The existing bodies for regulation of media such as the Press Council of India which is a statutory body and the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, a self-regulatory organization, issue standards which are more in the nature of guidelines. Recently, the Chairman of the Press Council of India, former Justice of the Supreme Court, Mr. M. Katju, has argued that television and radio need to be brought within the scope of the Press Council of India or a similar regulatory body. We discuss the present model of regulation of different forms of media. This note was first published at Rediff. 1. What is the Press Council of India (PCI)? The PCI was established under the PCI Act of 1978 for the purpose of preserving the freedom of the press and of maintaining and improving the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India. 2. What is the composition of the PCI and who appoints the members? The PCI consists of a chairman and 28 other members. The Chairman is selected by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha and a member elected by the PCI. The members consist of members of the three Lok Sabha members, two members of the Rajya Sabha , six editors of newspapers, seven working journalists other than editors of newspapers, six persons in the business of managing newspapers, one person who is engaged in the business of managing news agencies, and three persons with special knowledge of public life. 3. What are its functions? The functions of the PCI include among others (i) helping newspapers maintain their independence; (ii) build a code of conduct for journalists and news agencies; (iii) help maintain “high standards of public taste” and foster responsibility among citizens; and (iv) review developments likely to restrict flow of news. 4. What are its powers? The PCI has the power to receive complaints of violation of the journalistic ethics, or professional misconduct by an editor or journalist. The PCI is responsible for enquiring in to complaints received. It may summon witnesses and take evidence under oath, demand copies of public records to be submitted, even issue warnings and admonish the newspaper, news agency, editor or journalist. It can even require any newspaper to publish details of the inquiry. Decisions of the PCI are final and cannot be appealed before a court of law. 5. What are the limitations on the powers of the PCI? The powers of the PCI are restricted in two ways. (1) The PCI has limited powers of enforcing the guidelines issued. It cannot penalize newspapers, news agencies, editors and journalists for violation of the guidelines. (2) The PCI only overviews the functioning of press media. That is, it can enforce standards upon newspapers, journals, magazines and other forms of print media. It does not have the power to review the functioning of the electronic media like radio, television and internet media. 6. Are there other bodies that review television or radio? For screening films including short films, documentaries, television shows and advertisements in theaters or broadcasting via television the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) sanction is required. The role of the CBFC is limited to controlling content of movies and television shows, etc. Unlike the PCI, it does not have the power to issue guidelines in relation to standards of news and journalistic conduct. Program and Advertisement Codes for regulating content broadcast on the television, are issued under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. The District magistrate can seize the equipment of the cable operator in case he broadcasts programs that violate these Codes. Certain standards have been prescribed for content accessible over the internet under the IT Rules 2011. However, a regulatory body such as the PCI or the CBFC does not exist. Complaints are addressed to the internet service provider or the host. Radio Channels have to follow the same Programme and Advertisement Code as followed by All India Radio. Private television and radio channels have to conform to conditions which are part of license agreements. These include standards for broadcast of content. Non-compliance may lead to suspension or revocation of license. 7. Is there a process of self regulation by television channels? Today news channels are governed by mechanisms of self-regulation. One such mechanism has been created by the News Broadcasters Association. The NBA has devised a Code of Ethics to regulate television content. The News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), of the NBA, is empowered to warn, admonish, censure, express disapproval and fine the broadcaster a sum upto Rs. 1 lakh for violation of the Code. Another such organization is the Broadcast Editors’ Association. The Advertising Standards Council of India has also drawn up guidelines on content of advertisements. These groups govern through agreements and do not have any statutory powers. 8. Is the government proposing to create a regulatory agency for television broadcasters? In 2006 the government had prepared a Draft Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2006. The Bill made it mandatory to seek license for broadcasting any television or radio channel or program. It also provides standards for regulation of content. It is the duty of the body to ensure compliance with guidelines issued under the Bill.