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SC asks Centre, states’ reply on plea for prohibiting ads using public money

The Supreme Court on Monday sought the response of states and Centre on a petition seeking prohibition on government advertisements close to elections and issue of “misleading” advertorials that uses public money to eulogize the achievements by political parties and their governments.

The bench of justices Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and Hima Kohli issued notice on the petition filed by NGO Common Cause which pointed out that such advertisements violate a 2015 judgment of the top court which laid down guidelines on government advertisements to check misuse of public funds by central and state governments.

The bench, though had initial doubts on the extent to which the Court can order relief as it said, “In a democracy, public representatives are allowed to show how good they are. Politics is also a competitive space and there is competition between governments to show themselves better.”

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Advocate Prashant Bhushan appearing for the petitioner NGO said, “They are free to do so but not using public money. Certain kinds of advertisements are issued by state governments outside the state for political purposes. Under the garb of advertorial, malpractice is going on as this is designed deceptively to mislead as news.”

The bench remarked, “This is how politics is changing. People are getting educated. If the governments feel they need to reach masses, they put forth their point of view through advertorial.”

Bhushan raised another issue through his petition that such advertisements are often seen to appear close to elections. This destroyed the level playing field as the party in power will have funds at its command to issue advertisements and drum up its achievements as compared to other political parties in the fray. In his view, there ought to be a prohibition of advertisements three months prior to elections.

The bench said, “We realise it is public money but as a Court, should we step into this at all. Ultimately it is dissemination of information. How do we stop them from doing this?”

But the Court agreed to examine if the advertisements violated the 2015 guidelines issued by it.

The May 13, 2015 judgment in Common Cause v Union of India laid down five broad principles for regulating government advertisements. This required that the advertising campaigns be related to government responsibilities and to be presented in an objective, fair and accessible manner, aimed at meeting the objectives of the campaign.

It was not meant to promote the political interests of a political party and such campaigns were required to be “efficient and cost-effective”. It was lastly held that all advertisements must comply with legal requirements and financial regulations and procedures.

The same judgment also mandated the government to set up a three-member committee to oversee the implementation of the recommendations.

In April 2016, the Centre formally constituted the Committee on Content Regulation of Government Advertisements (CCRGA).

However, Bhushan claimed that this Committee ought to have independent members chosen by a panel of which Chief Justice of India (CJI) should be a member.

The bench remarked, “There is enough work the CJI has to do on a daily basis. We cannot direct the CCRGA members to be selected by a high-powered committee comprising CJI.”

Currently the appointment of CCRGA members is done by a three-member panel comprising Chairman, Press Council of India, Secretary (Information and Broadcasting) and an independent expert.

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