Paid news should be made an electoral offence that attracts disqualification so that it acts as a deterrent, Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath suggested and said inadequacies in legal framework were not allowing the poll panel to effectively check this and other malpractices.
He also said that there is a “crying need” for a “well-defined legislation” governing expenditure of political parties during elections as its absence was allowing them and their candidates to circumvent the rules.
Sampath, who was speaking at a session organised by the Law Commission, said that when the Election Commission looked into whether it had the powers to deal with paid news it found the “answer was negative.”
He said that ‘paid news’ in whatever form or nomenclature is presently not even an electoral offence.
“If it is an electoral offence, it can eventually lead to the disqualification of the candidate. Whatever the difficulties of implementation, the very fact that if it is listed as electoral offence, it would act as a deterrent against people using it in the elections,” he said.
The CEC said that a recommendation in this regard has been made to the Law Ministry.
He even wondered why the government advertisements during elections should not be considered as paid news.
Paid news not being an electoral offence, he said, EC now tries to check this menace by invoking its powers related to candidates’ spending. He said that if a candidate is caught, the amount is added to the candidate’s expenditure.
He also said that the EC catches instances of paid news but it is like “they were paying some traffic fine, and they will do that and continue with the journey merrily”.
The CEC also said that while the Commission’s control over a candidate’s spending is only after he files his nomination, people make substantial election related expenses before that.
“We have a case in Haryana, where a day before the filing of the nomination, a candidate organised a rally in which he was reported to have spent Rs 1.5 crore. Everybody, the whole world knows that he is the candidate. Somebody complains, wants us take action against him, we can’t. Only from the day he files his nomination we can start looking at his expenditure,” the CEC said.
He added that the Election Commission is constrained “because of the law and the interpretation of the law.” The law says the EC can hold an election within the period of six months before the due date. “We have been making proposals on so many occasions. Why should not the Commission have powers to ensure the purity of the election during this six-month period,” he said.
He said that advertisements or paid news by political parties is one thing, advertisements given by government during this period “is also paid news”.
He also noted that all limits for poll expenditure is for candidates and none for political parties.
“We have seen political parties handling huge amounts of cash. We have seen political parties giving huge amounts of cash to the candidates. When caught, the candidates claim the money is meant for him to distribute to others in his district or in his state.
“There is no regulatory framework governing these things”, said Sampath.
The CEC also called for a “well-defined law” relating to opinion polls conducted by TV channels.
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