The ‘Paid News’ issue was raised in Rajya Sabha today under Calling Attention Notice tabled by Shri Sitaram Yechury regarding the role of print and electronic media indulging in paid news in disguise as news. The text of Minister of Information & Broadcasting Smt. Ambika Soni’s statement made in response to the Calling Attention Notice is as follows:

“The Government is committed to ensuring the right to the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under the Constitution of India. In pursuance of this objective of preserving the freedom of press and maintaining and improving the standard of newspapers in India and to inculcate the principles of self regulation among the press, the Press Council of India (PCI), an autonomous body was set up under the Press Council Act, 1978. The PCI has developed Norms of Journalistic Conduct that cover the principles and ethics regarding journalism.

PCI has also laid down guidelines on reporting of specific issues of public and national importance. In 1996, it drew up a set of guidelines that are particularly applicable to financial journalism. PCI has also issued guidelines on reporting of elections.

In recent months, however, there have been a number of media reports that sections of the electronic and print media have received monetary considerations for publishing or broadcasting in favour of particular individuals or organizations or corporate entities, what is essentially “advertisement” disguised as “news”. This has been commonly referred to as the “paid news syndrome”. While this is not a new phenomenon, it has attracted greater public attention of late and is being widely discussed and debated across the country.

It has been reported that the owners of some media organizations have financial relationships, including share-holdings, with advertisers.

Further, cases have been reported wherein identical articles with photographs and headlines have appeared in competing publications carrying bylines of different authors or sometimes even without bylines, around the same time. On the same page of specific newspapers, articles have been printed during elections, projecting rival candidates, both as winning candidates! While it is widely agreed that it is not easy to find proof for such malpractices, there exists strong circumstantial evidence.

It is, however, very commendable that this issue of “paid news” has been vigorously raised by some sections of the media themselves. The Editors Guild of India has in its press note on this issue dated 23.12.2009 condemned this unethical practice and called upon all editors of the country to desist from publishing any form of advertisements which masquerade as news. They went on to say that it is imperative that news organizations clearly distinguish between news and advertisements with full and proper disclosure norms, so that no reader and viewer is tricked by any subterfuge of advertisements published and broadcast in the same format, language and style of news. The Indian Women Press Corp, a body of working women journalists from print, TV and online media are also highlighting this issue in a seminar being held in a few days from now in order to build an opinion against this malpractice. The Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists (A.P.U.W.J.) conducted a detailed sample survey to highlight the manner in which newspapers had published “paid news” items. A number of senior journalists have formally complained about the phenomenon of “paid news” to the Press Council of India and the Election Commission of India.

In view of all this, the PCI has constituted a Sub-Committee to consider this issue and collect evidence from stakeholders, including the Election Commission of India. The representatives of Election Commission of India in their interaction with the Sub-Committee on 16.12.2009 desired the Council to define what constituted “paid news” so that expenditure incurred by the political parties and the candidates become accountable. The Committee has also met representatives of Indian Newspapers Society (INS) and Indian Language Newspapers Association (ILNA). The Committee also held its meeting at Mumbai on 27th & 28th January 2010 to interact with the stake holders.

As part of evidence gathering exercise, the Committee also visited Hyderabad on 9th & 10th February, 2010 and met stake-holders. The representatives of A.P.U.W.J. named six newspapers, carrying numerous paid news stories.

The report of this Committee is likely to be placed before the Council by the end of March for further action.

This phenomenon of “paid news” is therefore, a serious matter as it influences the functioning of a free press. The media, acts as a repository of public trust for conveying correct and true information to the people. However, when paid information is presented as news content, it could mislead the public and thereby hamper their judgment to form a correct opinion. Thus, there is no denying the fact that there is an urgent need to protect public’s right to correct and unbiased information.

It is important that all sections of society should introspect on this issue as it has wide ranging implications for our democratic structure.”

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