Recently in the amendments to the Press and Registrations of Book Act, the I&B Ministry introduced the clause of the controversial ‘paid news’. As per the norm proposed by the Ministry, ‘paid news’ would mean publishing any news or analysis for a price in cash or kind as consideration.
The amendment has evoked mixed response from the industry. While some editors and senior journalists have welcomed the decision, others have questioned the veracity, intent and the timing of the amendment.
Paid news came aggressively into limelight during 2009 elections after it was reported by various sections of the media. Post various instances being reported from many quarters, the Election Commission had laid strict regulations regarding news coverage during elections. The Commission has recently served a notice to BJP candidate from Sawaimadhopur Assembly seat, Diya Kumari, in what appears to be a case of paid news.
John Thomas, former Head National News Services of The Statesman and Deccan Herald and former Reporter and Editor with Reuters and AFP said, “I welcome the Union Government proposing to include paid news into the PRB Act, because the reader/viewer of news and views has a right to expect the content he is consuming to be genuine and not spurious. When the producer and distributor of news/views brings to bear monetary considerations on the content put out to the public, it is as good as mixing adulterated with genuine products in the mass consumption market. The consumer has a right to know what he is getting.”
On the eve of Press day, Hamid Ansari, Vice President of India, had also raised the issue of the paid news.
Various stakeholders though have appreciated the intent of the Government but have also questioned the timing of the proposed amendment. “Why are all these amendments and norms coming now – six months before the elections? The Government by all means is trying to curb the power of the press. This is evident citing various objections raised over opinion polls and TV debates. Paid news was an issue long before. Shouldn’t the Ministry have taken such an initiative earlier? One can easily decipher this as shooting the messenger again,” said Nitesh Patil, Independent Media Analyst.
R Jaganathan, Editor-in-Chief, Forbes Magazine questioned the definition of paid news in the amendment. In an article on Firstpost, he shared “By this definition, every newspaper owned by a political party or government should be banned — since the nexus is obvious. Doordarshan is owned and paid for by the government, and what it publishes is largely favourable to government. So is it paid news or not? What about party papers? They publish nothing unfavorable to the parties that own them. The salaries of the staff are paid for by the party, and the party itself may be getting funds from businessmen and crooks. Isn't this ‘paid news’? He further added, “The intent of the proposed Bill seems holy, but does any advertiser put what he wants a newspaper to do in ‘writing’ in order to enable the sleuths at the Press Council to find the nexus between payments and stories published?”
The definition of paid news in the amendment was also questioned by Thomas. “By the definition prescribed, it would appear from the expression ‘news and analysis’ that the government has in mind political and business news and views. That is not enough in this day and age of electronic media. The definition should cover all text, graphics and audio-video content,” he said.
Although paid news has been discussed and questioned various times, experts believe that it is unlikely that the development would wield any results in the near future. Although the Ministry has sought suggestions on the amendment till November 19, stakeholders believe that such a development would take time and it is unlikely to take place before the elections.