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With assembly polls in some states due by early next year, the Election Commission today expressed concern over the "alarming proportion" of "paid news" and directed officials to closely monitor poll-related reports."The recent phenomenon of 'paid news', which is assuming alarming proportion as a serious electoral malpractice, has been causing concern to the Commission in the context of conduct of free and fair elections," the EC said.In its directive to Chief Electoral Officers of all states and Union Territories, the EC asked the District Electoral Officers to closely monitor the media in this regard.District-level committees may be constituted by the District Election Officers (DEOs) as soon as election was announced to undertake vigorous scrutiny of all newspapers, published from or having circulation in the district, in order to locate political advertisement in the garb of news coverage appearing within the election period, it said."DEOs should closely monitor advertisements released in print media in any form including surrogate advertising in the form of news, and serve notices to candidates/political parties where called for, so that the expenses incurred thereon are duly reflected in the account of the concerned candidate/party," the EC said.Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh was recently issued a notice in connection with an alleged case of paid news against him filed by the BJP with regard to assembly polls in the state last year.The District Committee should keep a watch on the election news and features on the electronic media in the district, the Commission said."When there is disproportionate coverage to the speech/ activities of a candidate on television/radio channels, which is likely to influence the voters and yield electoral benefit to a particular candidate, and the same coverage appears in several channels, then the candidate should be served with notices by the DEOs to explain her/his stand as to why the coverage should not be treated as advertisement," it said.Referring to the existence of a committee for previewing, scrutinising and verifying all advertisements by candidates or political parties, it said the phenomenon of paid news "bypasses the scrutiny" of this panel "despite being a political advertisement in spirit and also evades accounting in the expenses book of the candidates".The Commission asked the CEOs to strengthen these committees so as to scrutinise the news reports in electronic media, which bear the character of political advertisement, though without being declared to be so."Notices to candidates/parties may be issued by the CEOs on the basis of recommendation of such Committees", the Commission said.The cases of "paid news" generally manifest in the forms of news articles and reports published about a particular candidate or a party eulogising them, or similar news articles and reports denigrating the opponents, both intended at unduly influencing the voters, it said."The same or similar type of news articles/reportings (with cosmetic modification) appearing in more than one newspaper periodical would amount to further corroboration as circumstantial evidence that such news publication could result from collusion of the candidate/party with the editors, publishers, financers of the newspaper," the EC said.Noting that several political parties and media groups have conveyed their concerns, the EC said "there is near unanimity to take necessary steps to put a halt to such 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 practice of paid news has to be seen as an attempt to circumvent the provisions of the Representation of People Act which prescribe accounting and ceiling of election expenses and make exceeding such prescribed limits a corrupt practice in elections, it added.
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