Recently, the Madras High Court directed the Tamil Nadu government to include the photographs of the President and PM of India in advertisements on the 44th Chess Olympiad underway in Chennai. The HC relied on a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that issued guidelines on government spending on advertisements.
- In Common Cause v Union of India, the petitioners had argued that there is arbitrary spending on advertisements by the government.
- The allegations ranged from wastage of public money for political mileage to using advertisements as a tool to manipulate media.
- While terming the then advertisement policy as insufficient, the SC had set up a committee to suggest a better policy for government-funded ads.
- The committee was led by noted legal academician N. Madhava Menon.
Suggestions made by the committee –
- The three-member committee suggested a fresh policy — the Government Advertisements (Content Regulation) Guidelines 2014 with five broad principles —
- Advertising campaigns are to be related to government responsibilities.
- Materials should be presented in an objective, fair manner and designed to meet objectives of the campaign.
- Advertisements must not be directed at promoting political interests of a party.
- Campaigns must be justified and undertaken in a cost-effective manner.
- Advertisements must comply with legal requirements and financial regulations.
The Supreme Court ruling of 2015 –
- The 2015 judgment came on the basis of a series of recommendations given by the committee.
- SC largely accepted the committee report except on a few issues. These were —
- the appointment of an ombudsman to oversee the implementation of the guidelines,
- a special performance audit of government spending, and
- an embargo (official ban) on publication of advertisements on the eve of elections.
- The judgement held that —
- Objectives to be fulfilled by the government advertisement —
- The primary cause of government advertisement is to use public funds to inform the public of their rights, obligations, and entitlements and to explain policies, programs, services and initiatives.
- When these requisites are not fulfilled in a government advertisement then the whole purpose would be frustrated.
- Award of advertisement on equal basis —
- Patronisation of any particular media house(s) must be avoided and award of advertisements must be on an equal basis to all newspapers.
- The ruling, however, allowed categorisation of newspapers based upon their circulation.
- On the use of party’s symbol, logo etc. —
- The ruling mandated that government advertisements –
- will not contain a political party’s symbol, logo or flag and are required to be politically neutral and must refrain from glorifying political personalities.
The Issue of photographs in advertisements –
- 2015 Ruling on the use of photographs —
- The 2015 judgement restrained ruling parties from publishing photographs of political leaders or prominent persons in government-funded advertisements.
- As an exception to this general rule, the court held that the photos of only three constitutional authorities – Prime Minister, President and Chief Justice of India – can be used in such ads.
- But for that too, the personal approval of these three authorities need to be got before publication.
- Hence, in a way, this judgement made these three authorities accountable for the publication.
- Judgement challenged —
- Later, the Centre and many states sought a review of the verdict on the ground that not permitting the publication of the CM’s photograph would violate the federal structure.
- The judgement was also opposed on the basis that it overlooks the fact that PM is the first among equals. Hence, the photographs of cabinet colleagues should also find a place on advertisements.
- Current Status —
- Later, SC relaxed the bar, allowing pictures of Union ministers, Chief Ministers, Governors and State ministers in government advertisements.
Criticism of SC ruling –
- The SC ruling stepped into content regulation, which is a facet of the right to freedom of speech and expression, and was also in the domain of making policy.
- Hence, many experts raised questions on the judiciary stepping on the executive’s domain.
- Every penny that government spends is authorised by Parliament which can refuse budget for advertisements. Hence, Court has no jurisdiction to say what and how a government should advertise.