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Friday, 13 April 2007 00:00

Broadcasting Bill to Rain in the Monsoon Session

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Industry's Call for Self Regulation…Accepted!

The first formal content code for television channels has been drawn by the government. A part of the content code is likely to be embedded in the proposed Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill. The code will provide an allotted time band for TV viewing which says that only those films and programmes certified as 'U' will be allowed to be telecast during the day and prime time hours. Films with 'A' and 'U/A' censor certification and other progrmames for adult viewing will be allowed telecast from 11pm to 5am. 

Self-regulation clauses will also form a part of the content code. Complaints can be made by groups of people or associations against objectionable content on channels in conformity to the self-regulation rules. TV channels must revert in case a complaint is registered. A panel will be created to monitor self-regulation as per the content code. Indian Broadcasting Foundation, the representing organization of the broadcast industry, may act as the monitoring panel. 

Hill Hill Com Again……in the Mansoon Session

After the tabling of the bill in the Parliament being delayed for more than a year, the Broadcasting Bill is expected to be introduced in the next session that means the monsoon session and this gives a feeling of deja vu as there was a similar announcement made by the government ahead of the last year's monsoon session. But the government was busy holding meetings and discussions with industry on some of the 'draconian clauses' in the bill. I&B Minister, PR Dasmunsi subsequently dispelled the apprehensions of the media fraternity on the bill. 

The Supreme Court of India in its landmark judgment in 1995 said that broadcasting should have an independent regulatory authority as airwaves belong to the people. The draft of the proposed bill has some features like providing a certain percentage for “public service broadcasting” and “local production by foreign broadcasters” as an obligation. Another issue that was raised largely by the media organisations was of self-regulation of content, both individually by broadcasters and together by the industry, with only minimum guidelines of an independent regulator. 

The industry also demanded that the proposed regulator, Broadcast regulatory Authority of India be empowered to deal with critical and contentious issues on which the Ministry should not orchestrate from behind. The campaign spearheaded by the news channels against the proposed draft of the bill, even before it was put to public debate. Media moguls rallied against any legislation for broadcasting. Thereby rose certain contentious issues out of the draft Broadcast Bill 2006. Cable Quest puts forward some of the most controversial points of the bill that are still nagging the broadcasting fraternity and thus need government's consideration. 

(1)There is a need to decide upon the extent to which government should have a say in the operations of broadcasting in the country. 

(2)Setting up of an independent regulatory authority, to set the rules and their implementation. The nature of functioning of this regulatory body be truly independent or will it function at the instance of the government ? 

(3)“Airwaves belong to public”, as per the judgment of SC of 1995 after a gap of 11 years. Is such a notion valid today? 

(4)There is need to define cross media limits and also limits on the foreign investments in Indian media. What purposes prescribing a ceiling of 15% of channels serve the objective, for example? 

(5)Should all broadcasting operators be obligated to do a minimum level of “public service broadcasting”? Or there is nothing like that and if at all it should be the concern of the “public broadcaster” (that is DD and AIR). 

(6)The caps on the extent of advertising, (10 or 12 minutes in an hour) also need to be looked into. Or should it be left to broadcasters, whether a channel is FTA or pay channel? 

(7)The content code for broadcasting as an obligation, both in the case of programmes and advertising. 

(8)With so much ambiguity about “powers in public interest” and scope for subjectivity, should the government have such sweeping power to suspend broadcasting “at any time” and empower a “local officer” to 'search and seize” a broadcast operation. Is there no better way to cope up with rare extreme situations? 

(9)Should there be independent (instead of by government) monitoring of broadcasting operations and research on their impact particularly on children and vulnerable sections of society? Or as a part of regulator's responsibility? 

(10)It is also an important issue to decide on whether electronic and print media have a common regulator or separate ones or neither should have any. 

What irks the media?

Towards the end of July 2006, Hindustan Times carried a sequence of three articles warning that the proposed broadcast legislation was a significant threat to all the free speech guarantees of the Indian constitution. All three articles were published under the caption, 'Media Muzzled' and their basic purport was that the Bill embodied a familiar pattern of official paranoia and unreason. “Every few years”, began the first of the articles, “a nervous government decides that the media has gone overboard and must be subject to regulation. Democracy and free speech do not mean spreading canard about public authority, endangering national security and allowing for obscenity, runs the arguement”. Times of India observed in its report, that the bill “expanding on the already existing draconian provisions present in the Cable Networks Regulation Act and the DTH (broadcasting) guidelines. DNA, Mumbai urged that the bill be “killed”. The Indian constitution confers on the media no more and no less than the rights due to it as an institution that benefits from the public right to free speech and expression as enshrined in Article 19 (1)(a). 

Media perceives the Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill as a “draconian” to curb the powers of the media industry. This is to be contrasted with the broadcast bill mooted in 1997 as a means of ensuring a reasonable framework of rules for private broadcasters. Drafted during a brief interlude of openness within the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the 1997 bill provided for “inter-category restrictions on the number of license within a category”. 

What is it with our officialdom that when it comes to fundamentals of democracy they can't seem to get it after five decades of experience? Their latest attempt at bullying the citizen is a Bill that the Information & Broadcasting ministry has drafted, ostensibly to restrain media monopolies but in fact to subvert freedom of the press, and therefore of the right to free expression as guaranteed by our fine Constitution. Some of the proposed provisions go well beyond any reasonable goal of checking media monopolies. Media monopolies can pose a threat to freedom of expression. If just one house of media owners controls an overwhelming majority of print, radio and television outlets it could effectively manipulate the flow of news, opinions and information to its advantage. That is why we need a competitive market. With multiple options, readers and viewers can choose. By exercising that choice, they can guard their right to a free flow of information, and thus of their right to expression. 

Countries like US also keep a check on the monopolization of ownership in media but they don't let government arbitrarily decide what is good for the citizen to read or see and what is not, which is what the new Bill proposes. It reportedly had a provision that empowers officials of the rank of DM and SP to break into newsrooms and confiscate equipment if they feel, if a TV channel's programmes are not “in conformity with the prescribed Content Code”. Under Section 37 of the proposed Bill, an official's action against a media outlet cannot be challenged in court of law. Another point- State Governments will have the power under the proposed Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill to appoint officers who can grant, refuse or revoke licences/registration. I&B Minister Priyaranjan Dasmunsi said that the states will be free to designate those named as authorized officers under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 as the officers under the new legislation. The legislation will have the authority to designate officers of the Centre or State Government as the licensing or registering authority. These controversial issues are bothering the broadcasting industry and the answers will only be given once the bill is tabled in the parliament. Although the minister recently stated “I will see that the entire mechanism of the electronic media (regulation) will be dealt by electronic media itself and not by government”. 

While inaugurating FICCI-FRAMES 2007 in Mumbai on 26th March, Dasmunsi said the upcoming broadcast legislation “will be modern in outlook”. Also the I&B Ministry's Seceretary, SK Arora said, “Broadcasting has been unregulated so far but now the guidelines have been put in position. We however don't want to mandate everything in future like we did in case of the conditional access system”. Assuring are the words of the ministry but still the industry would better wait for the monsoon session of the parliament and of course the Broadcast Bill which is long waited and will hopefully bring accountability and self-regulation. 

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