Regulation of Government Advertisements in India- Gunsimran Sethi, 4th Year

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought almost the entire world to a standstill. It has brought forth some unprecedented concerns – economic, social, and political for almost all the nations. Amidst this conundrum surrounding us, came the suggestion- of no government advertising for 2 years to cut down treasury expenses, by one of our seasoned politicians. Obviously this suggestion wasn’t received warmly by the media houses and newspaper associations. But what actually makes government advertisements different from the Classifieds and whether are there some rules in place for the same? Hence, this article aims to discuss the ‘Regulations & Guidelines governing Government Advertisements’ along with the interplay of Article 19(1) and Article 142.

The Congress President, Ms Sonia Gandhi  was recently condemned for her one of the  many suggestions she gave  to Prime Minister to curtail government expenditure given the financial crisis looming large. What led to the ire of print media associations was her suggestion of ‘no government advertisement for 2 years as a measure for dealing with the  crisis that Covid -19 pandemic  has brought with it. The lashing out by the heads of various newspaper associations was obviously seen coming, given advertising is what fetches newspaper most of its revenue.

When it comes to advertisements in newspapers the Classifieds section deals with public & recruitment notices, matrimonial, etc., but the Government advertisements are reserved for purpose of disseminating information to public & publicizing its endeavours – including other state purposes. 

Right to know information is another facet of freedom of speech & expression. A citizen has a fundamental right to know, receive and to impart information necessary for public. In State of Uttar Pradesh v. Raj Narain the same was expounded by the Apex Court  that the people have right to know every public act by public functionaries, along with advertiser’s right to freedom of speech & expression.

These government advertisements are governed by various guidelines enumerated by the Supreme Court for the same, vide Common Cause v. Union of India (2014) and State of Karnataka v. Common Cause & Ors. (2016). The Supreme Court using its power under Article 142 of the Indian Constitution laid down a structured protocol regarding publishing of government advertisements. Even the Vishaka Guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court was a power exercised by it under Article 142 in a similar fashion.

Given that Indian governments are bent towards extracting political mileage and benefits from every possible situation, government advertising is no such exception. And probably this is the reason it has never come out with a legislation to regulate such advertisements. The Supreme Court taking cues from the procedure operating in certain countries regarding the censoring of government advertisement laid down certain rules for it, first in 2014 and minutely modified it later in 2016. Both these judgements were penned down by a bench of Justice Rajan Gogoi and Justice Pinaki Ghose, the first Lokpal of India. 

These guidelines are in addition to rules made by the Directorate of Advertising & Visual Publicity which comes under the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. The following five fundamentals govern the Government Advertisements:-

  • The content should be relevant for public e.g. Publicity of policies, announcements and should also be relevant as government’s responsibility.
  • The content should be accurate in terms of facts, figures and the government needs to show mindfulness to use space judiciously while ensuring maximum outreach.
  • The content should be free of political biasness, political party symbols and websites etc., can carry photograph of only the President/Prime Minister/Chief Justice and advance list of dignitaries whose birth and death anniversary remembrance to be published.
  • Ensuring of non-multiplicity of same advertisement by different ministries, cost effective sand judicious approach towards advertising, no public campaigns except health advisories and contract ads during and before elections.
  • Compliance with legal and financial regulations and procedure, election laws etc.

Apart from the above mentioned concerns, the governments can get an advertisement published on completing a particular tenure since it fulfils the criteria of ‘public information’. Advertisement for publication of inauguration of a project, foundation stone laying ceremony also provide informative content to the citizens and hence can be published. Advertisements not serving any purpose are to be strictly avoided. Anything in public interest and public information say, Policies, Government Schemes etc. can be advertised. It was vide Supreme Court’s judgement in State of Karnatka v. Common Cause (2016) that later the Court allowed the carrying of photograph of Minsters concerned of the Ministry regarding the advertisement in lieu of the President/Prime Minister’s picture.

Also these guidelines cater to the aspect of ensuring no patronisation of any media house or newspaper to ensure level playing field for all the news agencies concerned. After all, the Fourth estate is a force to reckon with in a democracy. Initially, the committee constituted by the Supreme Court recommended putting up of an Ombudsman in place to look after all the complaints of noncompliance with the guidelines, as well as regular auditing by each Ministry, but these suggestions of the committee were not incorporated in the final guidelines laid down by the Court.

Certain countries like U.S.A, Australia and U.K. lay down certain pecuniary caps on these public advertisements and also perform the cost benefit analysis test and reviewing before they go in for print and publication. It all trickles down to the political maturity the government in place shows. A lot of Political parties frowned and fumed over this court directive of limiting the use of photograph of only few. Given the object of these public advertisements is to ensure public awareness about the schemes, advisories, etc. the political parties try to use this agenda.

Reckless overspending of governments on advertisements almost every year becomes a subject of political discourse on various levels. In the garb of disseminating public information they try to reap as much as possible political output. Time and again the Supreme Court has intervened to ensure compliance with the above mentioned guidelines and to uphold the sanctity of the word of the court. An awakened government and a structured legislation for the same can plug in all the gaps presently existing. This is unfortunately only possible when political parties will focus more on public good and less on creating their brand value. For there is no shying away, to show the mirror to those in power to abide by and to justify their role as the providers of service to the public.

* Gunsimran Sethi is currently a Fourth Year student at Army Institute of Law, Mohali. Views are personal.


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