The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Centre dangles axe over poll ads

New Delhi, Jan. 31: The government is wary of allowing parties and candidates to advertise on private television channels before the Lok Sabha polls.

BJP sources said the Centre might urge the Election Commission to issue “strict guidelines” on putting out such ads and evolve a monitoring mechanism. Otherwise, a ban on political ads is the “only way out”.

Though channels are flush with the government’s “India Shining” spots, there is a flip side to publicity drives on television, the sources said.

“And that is the fear that parties and candidates may use TV to settle scores against rivals in the most questionable ways. Sting operations, verbal assaults, sensational but unsubstantiated disclosures — imagination can play havoc…,” one of them said.

The TV-savvy BJP is well aware of the pitfalls — leaders like Bangaru Laxman and Dilip Singh Judeo have been “stung” by secret cameras. The sources fear that replays of these episodes can hurt the party more than spots would reap benefits.

“The EC needs to understand the great reach of television, but it should not be abused as a result and lead to collateral damage,” a source said. “Strict guidelines must be issued and… (the) EC must also prescribe punishment if its guidelines are flouted.”

The Centre believes the information and broadcasting ministry — which, the sources believed, would be ultimately held “accountable” for what went into such ads — lacks the means to monitor all the news channels. They argued that while the print media has the Press Council as a watchdog, television news channels do not have an equivalent.

Presently there are 106 news channels, 47 news and current affairs programmes and 19 24-hour news channels.

The sources are wary of the “unauthorised” channels as they are most “vulnerable” to exploitation because “money is the bottomline” for them. Apparently, they proliferated in every major town of the states that went to polls in November.

However, they admitted that the poll panel would have “little time” to consider its request after conferring with all parties. Moreover, Nirvachan Sadan may be reluctant to intervene as the restriction it had imposed in 1999 on spots in private channels was stayed by two high courts.

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