India: ‘Paid news’ report spectre returns to haunt Press Council
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India: ‘Paid news’ report spectre returns to haunt Press Council

A year after the Press Council of India decided to bury a sub-committee report on the malaise of “paid news” in the news media, the issue has returned to haunt the council again. The Central Information Commission (CIC) has directed the Press Council make public the report of the two-member sub-committee as part of suo motu disclosure mandated under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

The Press Council of India had constituted a two member sub-committee comprising senior journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K Sreenivas Reddy to probe the phenomenon of paid news following allegations that publicity material of some politicians camouflaged as news was being published by certain media organisations. The committee had submitted its report ‘Paid News: How Corruption in the Indian Media Undermines Democracy’ in April 2010.

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A meeting of the Press Council of India on July 30, 2010, however, decided not to make the damning report public, and instead opted for a much watered down version.

The CIC direction came after a RTI applicant demanded from the Press Council a copy of report and communications exchanged on the issue besides other information. The council initially refused to provide information saying it was seeking legal opinion on disclosing the report and providing it under the RTI Act. Later, it asked for an additional fee for providing the same. The applicant stated that he had not received any such letter and the report should be published as proactive disclosure mandated under the law. The council did not cite any provisions of the RTI Act while denying the information required as per the provisions of the transparency law.

“This (suo motu disclosure) appears to be a reasonable demand and the Commission under its powers under Section 19(8)(a)(iii) directs the PIO to ensure that the report is placed on the website of the Council before October 10, 2011. This would be in fulfilment of its obligation under Section 4(1)(b)(xvii) of the RTI Act,” Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi held, while directing the council to provide it before September 30.

A number of newspaper houses had been named in the report as having indulged in malpractices. These included Bennett, Coleman and Co Ltd (owners of the Times of India), HT Media (owners of Hindustan Times, Hindustan and Mint), Dainik Jagaran, Dainik Bhaskar, Punjab Kesari, Lokmat, Eenadu, and Sakshi, among others.

Of the Press Council’s 30 members, 12 voted against making the report public, while nine were in favour. Six remained absent from the crucial meeting, while three abstained. Outlook magazine had carried a breakdown of who had voted for/against the motion. The magazine had even carried a note “This is based on information from some of the members present. Should any of those present in the July 30 meeting wish to dispute the above, we would be more than happy to offer their version and/or correct the above.” No one disputed the claims. It was clear that the publisher lobby in the council had held sway.

The report, in due course, leaked out into the public. The government, however, could not act on it since the document could not be deemed as official.

The buried report had its roots in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Once over, disturbing news emerged of payment of money by candidates to representatives of media companies for favourable coverage, or the phenomenon popularly known as “paid news”. The Press Council of India subsequently acted and constituted the two-member sub-committee to study the phenomenon. The council itself could not have punished any of the errant newspapers since it does not have punitive powers. The Election Commission, perhaps, could have.

Meanwhile, all eyes will stay glued to the Press Council’s website for the report to officially make it into the public domain.