The issue of paid news has been debated for a long time, most recently during the 2012 Gujarat assembly elections, the Jindal Steel-Zee News dispute and disqualification of a sitting UP MLA by the Election Commission of India (ECI) in October 2011. The Standing Committee on Information Technology recently submitted its report on the “Issues Related to Paid News”. The report discusses the definition of paid news, reasons for its proliferation, existing mechanisms to address the problem and recommendations to control it. Need for comprehensive definition of paid news The Press Council of India (PCI) defines paid news as any news or analysis appearing in print or electronic media for consideration in cash or kind. The Committee acknowledged challenges in defining and establishing incidence of paid news, citing new manifestations like advertisements disguised as news, denial of coverage to select electoral candidates, private deals between media houses and corporates and the rise in paid content. Hence, it asked the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MoIB) to formulate a comprehensive legal definition of ‘paid news’ and suggest measures for usage of ‘circumstantial evidence’ in establishing incidence of paid news. Reasons for rise in incidence of paid news The Committee identified corporatisation of media, desegregation of ownership and editorial roles, decline in autonomy of editors/journalists and poor wage levels of journalists as key reasons for the rise in incidence of paid news. It urged the MoIB to ensure periodic review of the editor/journalist autonomy and wage conditions. It also recommended mandatory disclosure of ‘private treaties’ and details of advertising revenue by the media houses. Need for empowered regulators and stricter punitive provisions The Committee observed that statutory regulators like the PCI and Electronic Media Monitoring Centre (EMMC) lack adequate punitive powers while self-regulatory industry bodies like the News Broadcasting Standards Authority have even failed to take cognisance of the problem. The PCI and self-regulatory bodies are also plagued by conflict of interest since a majority of their members are media-owners. The Committee recommended the establishment of either a single regulatory body for both print and electronic media or setting-up a statutory body for the electronic media on the lines of the PCI. Such regulator(s) should have the power to take strong action against offenders and should not include media owners as members. It highlighted the need for stricter punitive provisions to control paid news and sought further empowerment of the ECI to deal with cases of paid news during elections. Committee critical of government’s inaction The Committee censured the MoIB for its failure to establish a strong mechanism to check the spread of paid news. It criticised the government for dithering on important policy initiatives, citing the lack of action on various recommendations of the PCI and ECI. Previously, the PCI had sought amendments to make its directions binding on the government authorities and to bring the electronic media under its purview. Similarly, the ECI recommended inclusion of indulgence by an electoral candidate in paid news as a corrupt practice and publication of such paid news as an electoral offence. The Committee also expressed concern that the MoIB and self-regulatory bodies have not conducted any study to evaluate the mechanism adopted by other countries to tackle the problem of paid news. For a PRS summary of the Standing Committee Report, see here.
In the last few years, several states have enacted laws to curb cheating in examinations, especially those for recruitment in public service commissions. According to news reports, incidents of cheating and paper leaks have occurred on several occasions in Uttarakhand, including during the panchayat development officer exams in 2016, and the Uttarakhand Subordinate Services Selection Commission exams in 2021. The Uttarakhand Public Service Commission papers were also leaked in January 2023. The most recent cheating incidents led to protests and unrest in Uttarakhand. Following this, on February 11, 2023, the state promulgated an Ordinance to bar and penalise the use of unfair means in public examinations. The Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Bill replacing the Ordinance in March 2023. There have been multiple reports of candidates being arrested and debarred for cheating in public examinations for posts such as forest guard and secretariat guard after the ordinance’s introduction. Similar instances of cheating have also been noted in other states. As per news reports, since 2015, Gujarat has not been able to hold a single recruitment exam without reported paper leaks. In February 2023, the Gujarat Assembly also passed a law to penalise cheating in public examinations. Other states such as Rajasthan (Act passed in 2022), Uttar Pradesh (Act passed in 1998) and Andhra Pradesh (Act passed in 1997) also have similar laws. In this blog, we compare anti-cheating laws across some states (see Table 1), and discuss some issues to consider.
Typical provisions of anti-cheating laws
Anti-cheating laws across states generally contain provisions that penalise the use of unfair means by examinees and other groups in public examinations such as those conducted by state public sector commission examinations and higher secondary education boards. Broadly, unfair means is defined to include the use of unauthorised help and the unauthorised use of written material by candidates. These laws also prohibit individuals responsible for conducting examinations from disclosing any information they acquire in this role. The more recent laws, such as the Gujarat, Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan ones, also include the impersonation of candidates and the leaking of exam papers within the definition of unfair means. Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Andhra Pradesh prohibit the use of electronic aids. Maximum prison sentences for using such unfair means range from three months in Uttar Pradesh, to seven years in Andhra Pradesh.
Issues to consider
The Gujarat and Uttarakhand anti-cheating Acts have relatively stringent provisions for cheating. The Uttarakhand Act has a fixed 3-year prison sentence for examinees caught cheating or using unfair means (for the first offence). Since the Act does not distinguish between the different types of unfair means used, an examinee could serve a sentence disproportionate to the offence committed. In most other states, the maximum imprisonment term for such offences is three years. Andhra Pradesh has a minimum imprisonment term of three years. However, all these states allow for a range with respect to the penalty, that is, the judge can decide on the imprisonment term (within the specified limits) depending on the manner of cheating and the implications of such cheating. Table 1 below compares the penalties for certain offences across eight states.
The Uttarakhand Act has a provision that debars the examinee from state competitive examinations for two to five years upon the filing of the chargesheet, rather than upon conviction. Thus, an examinee could be deprived of giving the examination even if they were innocent but being prosecuted under the law. This could compromise the presumption of innocence for accused candidates. The Gujarat and Rajasthan laws also debar candidates from sitting in specified examinations for two years, but only upon conviction.
These laws also vary in scope across states. In Uttarakhand and Rajasthan, the laws only apply to competitive examinations for recruitment in a state department (such as a Public Commission). In the other six states examined, these laws also apply to examinations held by educational institutions for granting educational qualifications such as diplomas and degrees. For example, in Gujarat, exams conducted by the Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Board are also covered under the Gujarat Public Examination (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2023. The question is whether it is appropriate to have similar punishments for exams in educational institutions and exams for recruitment in government jobs, given the difference in stakes between them.
Sources: The Rajasthan Public Examination (Measures for Prevention of Unfair Means in Recruitment) Act, 2022; the Uttar Pradesh Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 1998; the Chhattisgarh Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2008; the Orissa Conduct of Examinations Act, 1988; the Andhra Pradesh Public Examinations (Prevention of Malpractices and Unfair means) Act, 1997; the Jharkhand Conduct of Examinations Act, 2001, the Uttarakhand Competitive Examination (Measures for Prevention and Prevention of Unfair Means in Recruitment) Act, 2023, the Gujarat Public Examination (Prevention of Unfair Methods) Act, 2023; PRS.