“…There exists strong circumstantial evidence of the malpractices,” Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni said in the Rajya Sabha in response to a Calling Attention Notice on the issue.
She said the phenomenon of the “paid news” is a serious matter as it influences functioning of a free press.
“When paid information is presented as news content, it could mislead the public and thereby hamper their judgement 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,” Soni said.
She said it was important that all sections of society should introspect on this issue as “it has wide ranging implications for our democratic structure.”
Representatives of the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists (APUWJ) has named six newspapers, carrying numerous “paid news” stories, she said in response to the notice given by CPI-M member Sitaram Yechury.
Concerned over the trend, Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley said there should be a regulator in the field which should impose “deterrent” penalties on the malpractice. He said if political parties are found to be indulging in the same, there should be action against them as well.
He asked the government whether it would take steps against the problem or leave the menace of unlawful trade and business to the Press Council of India which he called as “toothless wonder”.
Giving clarifications, Soni said the government did not view the “paid news” syndrome as freedom of expression. The proposals to give more teeth to the PCI is “under the consideration” of the government, she said.
She was responding to concerns expressed by Jaitley, who said the minister’s statement seemed to be based on a premise that the “paid news” is freedom of expression. He wanted the government to show a will and solutions could be found.
Soni said the PCI has been writing to successive governments to enhance its powers but “for one or the other reason”, it was not done.
While the government is committed to ensuring freedom of speech and expression, “all sections of society should introspect on this issue (paid news) as it has wide-ranging implications for our democratic structure.”
She said the report of the Sub-Committee on the issue would come by the end of this month.
Soni said that the PCI is giving adequate attention to ensure editor’s primacy in news organisations.
She welcomed a suggestion from Yechury to stop government advertisements to media houses, which are found to be indulging in such malpractices. But even if she had given a hint in this regard, she would have been charged with arm-twisting the media, Soni said.
Soni agreed to look into the issue of the Television Rating Point (TRP), which BJP leader and former Broadcasting Minister Ravishankar Prasad dubbed as the “biggest fraud…. and the biggest incentive behind paid news.”
The minister said she “will be in front row to check” anything that affects “unadulterated news”.
Yechury suggested a government probe into such issues and stopping state advertisements to those resorting to the practice.
P Achuthan (CPI) wanted setting up of a Joint Parliamentary Committee and a National Media Commission.
Naresh Gujral (SAD) said that paid news is a “criminal” activity and action should be taken accordingly.
Kalraj Mishra (BJP), P Rajeev (CPI-M), Moinul Hassan (CPI-M), Mysrura Reddy (TDP), Tarlochan Singh (Independent), Rajniti Prasad (RJD) and Parimal Nathwani (Independent) also expressed concern over the trend and sought a clearcut stand from the government.