Reality check

| Updated on November 19, 2020

India’s regulatory framework has to keep pace with the changing patterns of consumption of news and entertainment

A gazette notification transferring online news and current affairs as also films/web shows on Over The Top (OTT) streaming platforms to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) has been quickly followed by a set of regulations on FDI norms for digital media platforms. The government’s alacrity on the news website front is only matched by its inaction on regulation of television for which the Supreme Court has issued it a strict warning this week. There is no independent authority with statutory powers that oversees complaints pertaining to news on television.

This piecemeal approach reflects two misconceptions in an age where technology has revolutionised and customised the consumption of news and entertainment. The first is in the understanding that regulation automatically corresponds to censorship. As the experience of a statutory body such as the Press Council of India (PCI) and laws such as the Press and Registration of Books Act shows, freedom of the press can exist simultaneously with a regulatory framework. The laws related to hate speech, defamation, slander and national security simultaneously ensure a fair degree of accountability in the publication of news content in the print media. The PCI adjudicates complaints with appeals in the courts routinely following its lead and newspapers have existed with a fair degree of autonomy and credibility along with a statutory and regulatory structure. Why, then, has a similar structure not been created for TV where the Television Programming and Advertising Code prescribed under the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994 is routinely flouted to air toxic content disguised as news? The News Broadcasting Standards Authority is an independent body dealing with TV news-related complaints but it has no statutory powers. The Apex Court, which has been inundated with cases against objectionable news content on TV, has thus rightly been exasperated by the lack of any structural framework that filters such complaints.

Secondly, a holistic approach is sorely lacking at a time when news, entertainment and every conceivable form of information is flooding multiple media platforms at all hours. There is policy incoherence in the face of the tangled web that the world of broadcasting, information technology and telecommunication now represents. The Government would do well to dust out the report of jurist Fali S Nariman who reviewed the convergence of telecom, internet, cable and broadcasting television back in 2000. The Nariman report argued against separate regulatory bodies for different kinds of media. It recommended overseeing bureaus for each of the media platforms and envisaged a single super regulator. Converging technology translates into convergence of regulation and a dialogue among stakeholders is essential. The government needs to work with stakeholders such as the Internet and Mobile Association of India whose self-regulation code has just been rejected by the MIB leading to fears of censorship on OTT platforms.

Published on November 19, 2020

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