A report of PCI's two-member sub-committee on issues relating to this phenomenon proposed that section 123 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 be amended by Parliament to make the practice of paying for news coverage in newspapers and television channels an act of corruption and a punishable offence.
Though the panel observed there is no recorded documentation that would firmly establish there has been exchange of money with media houses, it nonetheless felt that the syndrome has become 'widespread" basing its judgement on circumstantial evidence.
The Central Information Commission had directed PCI last month to make public the report of the sub-committee on paid news as part of suo motu disclosure mandated under the RTI Act.
The committee comprising eminent journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K Sreenivas Reddy was set up to probe the phenomenon of paid news following allegations that publicity material of some politicians camouflaged as news was being published by some media organisations.
To eliminate the phenomenon, the sub-committee suggested that PCI guidelines on demarcation of news from advertisements by printing disclaimers, should be strictly enforced by all publications.
Noting that PCI's mandate does not extend beyond the print medium, it suggested widening its mandate to receive complaints and grievances against the working of television channels, radio stations and Internet websites.
"PCI should be given legal powers to not merely admonish or pass strictures but also impose penalties against errant individuals and organisations. A proposal to amend Section 15(4) of the Press Council Act, 1978, to make the directions of the Council binding on government authorities, has been pending for a long time and should be amended to provide the Council more teeth," it recommended."As far as news is concerned, it must always carry a credit line and should be set in a typeface that would distinguish it from advertisements," it strongly recommended.
Further, it said Election Commission of India should set up a special cell to receive complaints about paid news in the run-up to elections and initiate a process through which expeditious action could be taken on the basis of such complaints.
Among other suggestions, it recommended that all candidates and political parties be mandated to fully disclose their equity stakes in newspapers or television channels on which news about their candidates or parties as well as interviews with candidates of political parties are published or broadcast.