New Delhi: The phenomenon of "paid news" is a serious matter as it influences the functioning of a free press, the government declared in Parliament Friday, adding there was "urgent need to protect the public`s right to correct and unbiased information".
"This phenomenon of `paid news` is...a serious matter as it influences the functioning of a free press," Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni said in response to a calling attention motion in the Rajya Sabha.
"The media acts as a repository of public trust for conveying correct and true information to the people. However, when paid information is presented as news content, it could mislead the public and thereby hamper their judgment to form a correct opinion," Sone maintained.
"Thus, there is no denying the fact that there is an urgent need to protect the public`s right to correct and unbiased information," she added.
Speaking on the motion, Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley (Bharatiya Janata Party) said paid news should "be seen as trade or business with an unlawful purpose as it has nothing to do with freedom of speech".
He said a regulator should be set up with judicial authority to which all such complaints can be referred and which should have powers to impose deterrent penalties.
"If the government has the will to find a solution, it is possible," Jaitley said, adding that paid news was "violation of income tax laws and subversion of free and fair elections".
In response, Soni asserted that the government "does not view paid news syndrome as freedom of speech".
She also pointed out that the Press Council of India, in consultation with the Election Commission, was examining the setting up of a mechanism to look into complaints of paid news and the exercise is expected to be completed later this month.
According to Sitaram Yechury (Communist Party of India-Marxist or CPI-M), the corporatisation of media houses was leading to the paid news phenomena "which is a negation of parliamentary democracy".
Urging deterrent action, he suggested the government should stop its advertisements to newspapers and media houses "indulging in this malpractice".
In recent months, Soni noted, there had been a number of media reports that "sections of the electronic and print media have received monetary considerations for publishing or broadcasting in favour of particular individuals or organisations or corporate entities, what is essentially `advertisement` disguised as `news`".
This has been commonly referred to as the "paid news syndrome", Soni said, adding: "While this is not a new phenomenon, it has attracted greater public attention of late as it is being widely discussed and debated across the country".
There had been cases reported "wherein identical articles with photographs and headlines have appeared in competing publications carrying bylines of different authors or sometimes even without bylines, around the same time.
"On the same page of specific newspapers, articles have been printed during elections projecting rival candidates, both as winning candidates. While it is widely agreed that it is not easy to find proof of such malpractices, there exists strong circumstantial evidence," Soni maintained.
Lauding the media`s self-regulatory role, she said the Editor`s Guild of India, the Press Council of India, the Indian Women`s Press Corps and the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists (APUWJ) had "vigorously raised" the issue on various occasions.
The APUWJ had even named six newspapers for carrying numerous paid news stories, she added.