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Pre-poll curbs on ‘paid news’

Shillong, Nov. 26: All media publications (print and electronic) in Meghalaya will be under scrutiny once the dates of the election to the ninth Meghalaya Legislative Assembly are announced early next year to check the menace of “paid news” or “surrogate advertising”.

This is being done in accordance with an Election Commission directive, based on a Supreme Court order, to ensure that voters cast their ballot without being influenced by targeted news items or reports that either hype or harm the image of a candidate.

The Election Commission directive calls for setting up of media certification and monitoring committees in each district during the poll period to look out for reports that reek of manipulation.

“The committees will be set up once the poll dates are officially announced by the commission,” chief electoral officer Prashant Naik told The Telegraph today.

According to the commission, the cases of paid news are generally manifest in the form of news articles or reports published about a particular candidate or party eulogising them, or similar items denigrating the opponents, both intended at unduly influencing the electorate.

Sources in Guwahati said 42 suspected cases of paid news had cropped up in the run-up to the 2011 Assam Assembly polls but none of these could be proved.

The Meghalaya electoral machinery is anticipating around 15 lakh voters in the 2013 polls. “Till October 1, around 13.95 lakh voters have been registered and by January 5 — the day when the final electoral rolls will be published — the figure could be between 14.5 lakh and 15 lakh,” Naik said.

There were around 12.4 lakh voters in the last Assembly polls held in March 2008.

On the expenses to be incurred during the polls, Naik anticipated a requirement of Rs 15 crore. In 2008, the figure was around Rs 10 crore. He said the expenditure ceiling for every candidate had been raised to Rs 8 lakh. In 2008, the ceiling was Rs 5 lakh.

On the law and order scenario, especially in Garo hills, Naik said a detailed assessment would be undertaken next month.

Asked whether security forces would be air-dropped in sensitive areas of Garo hills, he expressed optimism that rebel groups would not disrupt the polls. “They have not done it in the past, I hope they will not disrupt the free and fair elections this time too.”

Meghalaya goes to the polls in February-March next year across 60 Assembly seats in 2,485 polling stations. It will also be first Assembly elections held under the delimited constituency norm, which calls for division of the state into constituencies having roughly equal population (2001 Census). The number of constituencies should be equal to the number of existing Assembly or Lok Sabha seats in the state.