Cutting across political lines, members in Rajya Sabha today voiced concern over the growing menace of paid news that can mislead readers and sought effective government response to stamp it out.
After members raised concerns over publicity advertisements being camouflaged as news in advertorial or response features, Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley said paid news is an aberration and should be checked but there lies a danger of government action being construed a interference in free speech.
Noting that a very important issue has been raised, the Minister said he had least of doubts that all members are “absolutely committed to free speech”.
And commercial speech like advertisements also constitutes part of free speech, he said.
“Paid news is an aberration… We are all victims of paid news,” he said.
He said advertisement is right of everyone but “when governments start excessively advertising, where is the dividing line between advertisement and bribery”.
“We want to get rid of (this) aberration,” he said adding there would be a discussion in the House on the issue to find ways to deal with the problem.
He said there was a danger of any action being construed as government interference. Earlier, raising the issue through a zero hour mention, Vijay Goel (BJP) said paid news is bringing into question the credibility of the media as covert advertisement in form of advertorials and response features are misleading people.
He displayed full page advertisements by AAP government in Delhi that display the publicity material in the form of news.
Citing the example of the recently concluded odd-even scheme of plying of cars in the national capital, he said on one day people read how the plan has not affected pollution levels and the next day they read in the same paper how successful the scheme was.
“Today the wall between sales department (selling space) and reporter has been removed,” he said, alleging that newspapers have entered private treaties to promote celebrities and businesses.
He said the Press Council of India has not done anything on his complains about paid news and demanded that the government set up a Media Accountability Committee.
While JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav said that owners of newspapers have become reporters, Congress leader Anand Sharma wanted the government to take action on the issue.
Naresh Agrawal (SP) said not just the print but electronic media also runs paid news in the form of surveys where they declare one winner to influence electoral outcome.
Naresh Gujral (SAD) said elections have become expensive because of paid news and alleged newspapers are now resorting to “blackmail”.
CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury said paid news is a blot on democracy.
Deputy Chairman P J Kurien agreed that it is a very serious matter and said members can give notices for discussion on the issue.