The Supreme Court, in a hearing held on Friday, stayed an order of the Delhi High Court that restricted the power of the Election Commission (EC) to act against paid news. The stay will allow EC to crack down on the instances of paid news in the five states going to poll next month.
The Election Commission had filed a Special Leave Petition (SLP) in the Supreme Court against the Delhi High Court Division Bench order contending that motivated propaganda by politicians published in newspapers cannot be considered part of their fundamental right to free speech. The EC had petitioned that the order of the High Court should be limited only to the concerned case and it should be treated as a precedent,
A division bench of the Delhi High Court had set aside an Election Commission order which disqualified Narottam Mishra, an MLA from Datia constituency in Madhya Pradesh after it claimed to have established 42 cases of ‘paid news’ in the newspapers in the run-up to polls in 2008.
The division bench in its order said that the Election Commission was attempting to exercise indirect control over the freedom of speech of the candidates. Para 77 of the order read, “Election Commission’s remit cannot ordinarily extend to judging content of speech; it is only to adjudge whether the election expenses incurred by the candidate or someone on her or his behalf, under her or his authority have been accounted” for.
In para 76 of the order states that the EC had “erred in interpreting” various laws and failed to establish that Narottam Mishra, a BJP minister in Madhya Pradesh, was responsible for the publication of 42 offending articles/features/ election appeals.
“The content of a media article, or a news feature or series of features on particular candidates, should ordinarily not be regulated indirectly through the directives of the EC; they essentially fall within the domain of free speech. Any indirect control would impact a citizen’s right to free speech and expression. Such indirect control would chill the right and freeze all debates — essential to democracy,” the court observed.
The Supreme Court clarified that sections 76 and 77 of the High Court order are related only to the case of Narottam Mishra, and it does establish any precedent for other decisions of EC in the context of paid news.
The Supreme Court’s order on the Delhi High Court judgement is crucial in view of the upcoming elections in the five states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Mizoram and Telangana.
The Supreme Court order can be accessed here [PDF].