Written By Joshita Pai
Following the direction by the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an order last month establishing a three member committee to effectuate the Supreme Court Guidelines on Content Regulation of Government Advertising. Government advertising refers to the use of public funds by ruling parties to project their achievements or make announcements about upcoming initiatives. These advertisements however, have occasionally been politically motivated, demonstrating the need for the guidelines issued by the Court in the Common Cause judgment. The guidelines were issued on the basis of a report submitted by a Court-appointed committee on the issue of use of public funds in government advertising.
According to the recent MIB order, the Supreme Court Guidelines will function as a stopgap arrangement until a legislation comes into force to regulate the content projected in government sponsored advertisements. The body set up by the Ministry will address complaints from the general public on violation of the guidelines prescribed by the Court. The Committee will be assisted by a member secretary, and will be set up parallelly at the state level, appointed by the respective State Governments. The three member body will be responsible for implementation of the SC guidelines on regulating content in government advertising.
Government advertising is often regarded as informative and in public interest since it facilitates circulation of necessary information with respect to upcoming welfare schemes or the progress of government initiatives. However, advertisements of this nature are often used gain political mileage. This practice has been criticized for several reasons, ranging from arbitrary use of public funds to non-objective presentation of information. Colourful presentation of information on the part of the government does not foster public interest. The right to freedom of speech and expression exercisable by the government is not dispensable but Article 19 also grants the right to information, and accurate information at that, which stands in equal measure. Balancing conflicting interests in this regard is a herculean task.
Government advertising, unlike political advertising which also often transcends permissible boundaries, is sponsored by the use of public funds that governments in power have access to. According to the Election Commission of India, the expenditure on government sponsored advertisements is incurred by the public exchequer and is contrary to the spirit of free and fair election, as the party in power gets an undue advantage over other parties and candidates. The practice has beckoned the need for an oversight authority and a set of workable standards to regulate such advertising, which have been recommended time and again, most recently in the Law Commission Report on Electoral Reforms. Moreover, the Election Commission too has assessed the mushrooming phenomenon of advertising by existing governments. In furtherance of these observations, the ECI recommended that advertisements for achievements of existing governments, either Central or State, in any manner, should be prohibited for a period of six months prior to the date of expiry of the term of the House.
The Guidelines issued by the Supreme Court
The case that brought about the guidelines was set in motion when Common Cause and the Centre for Public Interest Litigation sought to restrain the Union of India and State Governments from using public funds on government advertising. The petitioners emphasized that the object of these advertisements is generally to promote functionaries and candidates of a political party. One of the primary objections raised in the case was that such advertising is generally politically motivated. The petition called for the Court to issue comprehensive guidelines on usage of public funds on such advertisements. Giving due weightage to the plea, the Court appointed a committee to examine best practices in order to demarcate permissible advertising during campaigning from politically motivated advertisements. The committee submitted its report to the Supreme Court in September 2014 which contained a set of guidelines on content regulation in government advertising. These guidelines will be implemented by the committee established by the MIB.
According to the Guidelines, government advertising “includes any message, conveyed and paid for by the government for placement in media such as newspapers, television, radio, internet, cinema and such other media but does not include classified advertisements; and includes both copy (written text/audio) and creatives (visuals/video/multimedia) put out in print, electronic, outdoor or digital media.”
The guidelines further suggest that government advertisements should be politically neutral and should not include photographs of political leaders unless it is essential, in which case only the photographs of the Prime Minister/Chief Minister or President/Governor may be used. The enforceability of the guidelines has been left to the three member body which shall recommend actions accordingly.
According to the Guidelines, regulation of content should be guided by five fundamental principles:
- Advertising Campaigns to be related to Government responsibilities: The content of the government advertisement should be relevant to the government’s obligations and the rights of the citizens.
- Advertisement materials should be presented in an objective, fair, and accessible manner and be designed to meet the objectives of the campaign: The content and the design of the advertisement should be executed after exercise of due care and should not present previous policies of the government as new ones.
- Advertisement materials should be objective and not directed at promoting political interests of ruling party: The advertisement should steer clear of making political arguments and should be neutral in nature and should not seek to influence public support.
- Advertisement Campaigns must be justified and undertaken in an efficient and cost-effective manner: Optimum use of public funds and cost-effective advertisements reflect a need-based advertising approach
- Government advertising must comply with legal requirements and financial regulations and procedures: The advertisements must be compliant with existing laws such as election laws and ownership rights.
Government advertisements are issued on several occasions. They are issued to present the completion of a successful tenure, to commemorate anniversaries of people and to announce public welfare projects. In these instances, the object of the advertisement can be achieved with objective presentation of information. The committee set up singularly seeks to ensure that the right of the government to use funds to sponsor advertisements is not misused.