Between May 2019 and May 2020, the Andhra government spent over Rs 100 crore on print advertisements in Telugu dailies, with 52% of its allocation on Sakshi, reveals RTI documents.

Andhra CM Jagan Mohan Reddy sits behind his desk at a cabinet meeting
Voices Opinion Wednesday, September 02, 2020 - 15:51

A few days ago, one of us filed a PIL in the Andhra Pradesh High Court on questionable spending by the Andhra Pradesh government on its ads in print and electronic media. To give some background, an RTI report revealed that the present government spends a disproportionate share of its information and broadcasting expenditure on Sakshi newspapers and its television channel. This is accompanied by meagre allocations for other popular news outlets. Such spending betrays issues surrounding conflict of interest and punishing critical media organizations by depriving them of much needed public revenues.

Between May 23, 2019 and May 30, 2020, the Andhra Pradesh government spent ₹100.8 crore on print advertisements in Telugu dailies, reveals RTI documents. The principle behind these ads is to enhance awareness of the people regarding government schemes and projects, welfare programs, and other such state initiatives. The ads inform people about potential entitlements, eligibility conditions, application portals, and other such necessary details. It becomes critical that the government spends money in a way to ensure that the maximum number of people are made aware of these benefits. 

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, between July and December 2019, Eenadu (16 lakh subscribers), Sakshi (10.6 lakh subscribers), and Andhra Jyothi (6.6 lakh subscribers) have the largest readership in AP. The government spent 52% of its broadcasting allocation on Sakshi and 39.3% on Eenadu. Despite wide readership, Andhra Jyothi accounted for only 0.25% of the spending, far less than even minor dailies as Vaartha and Andhra Prabha. Politicians frequently claim they do not discriminate on the basis of caste, class, religion, or ideology. Perusing these figures, it is obvious that they do discriminate based on what newspaper you read. The readers of Andhra Jyothi and other outlets are losing out on important info that could impact their lives. Their fundamental right to information is violated.

 

Share of Andhra govt ads spent in Telugu newspapers

This kind of skewed spending reveals two other issues. Due to underdeveloped revenue models, newspapers are especially dependent on these revenues. By starving them of funds despite their evident popularity, the government also muzzles their voices. In the political landscape of Andhra, Eenadu and Andhra Jyothi, are known to be supportive of the opposition TDP, and critical of the YSRCP government unlike Sakshi. By unduly prioritizing minor newspapers, the government has made these publications its mouthpiece. Beyond the question of preferring newspapers affiliated to the ruling party, preferring Sakshi also raises the issue of conflict of interest. Members of Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy’s family are a part of the board running the company owning Sakshi. Much like US President Donald Trump hosting world leaders at his own resorts, this becomes a case of the government enriching the family of the Chief Minister. 

In its landmark judgment on this issue (Common Cause vs Union of India), the Supreme Court exercised its extraordinary powers under Article 142 to issue necessary guidelines on government messaging. The SC recommended that the publication of the photographs of Chief Ministers and his cabinet colleagues is permissible only if it is felt essential for effective government messaging. This directly runs contrary to the publication of other leaders, dead or alive, who might be considered important for the ruling party.  The court further laid down that “patronization of any particular media house(s) must be avoided and award of advertisements must be on an equal basis to all newspapers who may, however, be categorized depending upon their circulation.” It is clear that patronization must be avoided and circulation be prioritized. 

The full-page ads themselves focus on having huge pictures of the Chief Minister or other prominent leaders while the actual information is relegated to a corner in a small font. This is not specific to the present government alone or only Andhra Pradesh. Publicizing a leader or a party’s greatness at public expense and at the cost of conveying valuable information is a blatant misuse of public funds for private and political gains. The ads become more a source of self-aggrandizement rather than a genuine attempt at informing people. The main guidelines of the Supreme Court are laid out at follows: 

(1) Advertising Campaigns must be related to Government responsibilities 

(2) Advertisement materials should be presented in an objective, fair and accessible manner and be designed to meet the objectives of the campaign

(3) Advertisement materials should be objective and not directed at promoting political interests of ruling party

(4) Advertisement Campaigns should be justified and undertaken in an efficient and cost-effective manner

(5) Government advertising must comply with legal requirements and financial regulations and procedures

We further propose that since this is public money that is being used for the purpose of enlightening the public, a small share of it must also be allocated to the Opposition parties. By carrying out critical ads in newspapers, the Opposition will continue serving its legislative role even outside the legislature - holding the government to account. Just as the government pays for having bombastic claims and high praise for its leaders, the Opposition must also have the power to show the other side of their performance. To eliminate an abuse of power, both government and opposition spending must be subject to review by an independent body composed of eminent jurists and NGOs. This body could also measure actual impact on ground for spending above a certain amount. Not making course correction will only end up eroding our democracy further.

Vamsi Viraj is an alumnus of IIT Chennai and a political analyst. Naga Sravan Kilaru is a National Youth Awardee, 2018 and a political activist, who has worked with the TDP. Views expressed are the authors' own. 

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