PATNA: Election Commission of India (ECI) has initiated a move to check insertion of "paid news" items in the print and electronic media by political parties and candidates during elections. State chief electoral officers (CEOs) have been directed to form a committee in each district for the purpose.

The move assumes significance in view of the fact that assembly elections are round the corner in Bihar.

The practice of getting advertorials published in the garb of news items on payment is being viewed by the ECI as a grave electoral malpractice. "There has been a dialogue of stake holders with the commission at different platforms and there is near unanimity (over the need) to take necessary steps to put an end to such a malpractice which puts undue influence on the free will of the voters, encourages the role of money power in a covert manner and disturbs level-playing field in elections," the ECI said in a recent letter to the CEOs.

The practice of "paid news" has to be seen as an attempt to circumvent the provisions of Sections 77 and 123 (6) of the Representation of the People Act- 1951 which prescribes accounting and ceiling of election expenses, the letter said.

ECI principal secretary Tapas Kumar has directed the CEOs to exercise vigilance by making use of the existing provisions of law to check the incidence of "paid news" or "surrogate advertisements".

Quoting Section 127A of the Representation of the People Act- 1951, the ECI letter said it is mandatory for the publisher of an election advertisement, pamphlet etc to print the name and address of the publisher as well as printer. Failure to do so attracts imprisonment of up to two years and/or fine of Rs 2,000.

The district committees will pore over all the newspapers and watch all the TV channels to keep a tab on the election-related news/features pertaining to their respective districts. In case there is disproportionate coverage to the speech/activities of a candidate, which is likely to influence voters and yield electoral benefit to that particular candidate, the candidate should be issued a notice by the district election officer to explain his/her stand, the ECI letter said and added the commission should be informed of all such cases in which parties/candidates are put on notice.

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Pranava K Chaudhary
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