Suggestions by Securities and Exchange Board of India to Press Council of India

On July 15, 2009, Shri S. Ramann, Officer on Special Duty, Integrated Surveillance Department of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) wrote to the Chairman, Press Council of India, Justice G.N. Ray observing that many media companies were entering into agreements called “private treaties” with companies whose equity shares are listed on stock exchanges or companies that were coming out with a public offer of their shares. 

The media companies were picking up stakes in such companies and in return, were proving coverage through advertisements, news reports and editorials. The SEBI, which has been set up under the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992, and is mandated to protect the interests of investors, felt that such promotional and brand building strategies in exchange for shares, “may give rise to conflict of interest and may, therefore, result in dilution of the independence of (the) press vis-à-vis the nature and content of the news/editorials relating to such companies”.

(The SEBI pointed out that “private treaties” may “lead to commercialization of news reports since the same would be based on the subscription and advertising agreement entered into between the media group and the company”. Furthermore, “biased and imbalanced reporting may lead to inaccurate perceptions of the companies which are the beneficiaries of such private treaties”. Hence, the SEBI “felt that such brand building strategies of media groups, without appropriate and adequate disclosures, may not be in the interest of investors and financial markets as the same would impede in them taking a fair and well-informed decision. 

The SEBI suggested the following:
1. Disclosures regarding the stake held by the media company may be made mandatory in the news report/article/editorial in newspapers/television channels relating to the company in which the media group holds such a stake.
2. Disclosure on percentage of stake held by media groups in various companies under such “private treaties” on the website of media groups may be made mandatory.
3. Any such disclosures relating to such agreements such as any nominee of the media group on the board of directors of the company, any management control or other details which may be required to be disclosed and which may be a potential conflict of interest for the media group, may also be made mandatory.

(The SEBI communication to the Press Council of India pointed out that a “free and unbiased press is crucial for the development of the securities market, particularly with respect to aiding small investors to take a well informed decision” and urged the Council to address this issue at the earliest.
In this context, the Council referred to the existing guidelines for financial journalists that had been framed in 1996, which include the following:
1. Financial journalists should not accept gifts, loans, trips, discounts, preferential shares or other considerations which compromise or are likely to compromise his position.
2. It should be mentioned prominently in a report about a company that the report has been based on information provided by the company or its financial sponsors.
3. When trips are sponsored for visiting establishments of a company and hospitality extended, the author of the report who has availed of such facilities must invariably state these in his report.
4. A reporter who exposes a scam or brings out a report for promotion of a good project should be encouraged and awarded.
5. A journalist who has a financial interest in a company (including holding of shares) should not report on that company.
6. The journalist should not use for his personal benefit or for the benefit of his relations or friends, information received by him in advance for publication.
7. No newspaper owner, editor or anybody connected with a newspaper should use his relationship with the newspaper to promote his other business interests.
8. Whenever there is an indictment of a particular advertising agency or advertiser by the Advertising Standards Council of India, the newspaper in which the advertisement was published must publish news of the indictment prominently.

After deliberating on the issue, the Press Council of India endorsed the views expressed by the SEBI and stated that the relevant guidelines should be made applicable and mandatory not only to financial journalists but to owners of media companies as well. This would be in the interests of transparency and fairness and would reduce the incidence of biased news about companies being published that is inimical to the interests of investors.

Source: Kafila

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