Commentary: Parallel self-regulatory bodies detrimental to news sector, here is how government can fix this

Even as such confusion always benefits the government in power, it must intervene sooner than later if I&B Ministry's affidavit in the Supreme Court, and statements by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar on the state of media, hold any substance

Niraj Sharma
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Commentary: Parallel self-regulatory bodies detrimental to news sector, here is how government can fix this

(Left) Jagdish Singh Khehar and Arjan Kumar Sikri (Right)

Amid the debate triggered by about toxic content being rejected by India’s top brands, a panel for programme code was formed last month for news channels under the Arnab Goswami-led News Broadcaster’s Federation, parallel to the existing code under the independent self-regulatory body, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority. last week reported that Retd. Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar has been named as the Chairman of the NBF’s self-regulatory body Professional News Broadcasting Standards Organisation (PNBSO).

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At a time when various courts, including the Supreme Court, and I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar are questioning and commenting on the need for news channels to exercise restraint, two separate self-regulatory bodies will only lead to more confusion, making a mockery of self-regulation.

In an affidavit before the Supreme Court in the Sudarshan TV case, the News Broadcasters Association demanded the court’s recognition for NBSA headed by Retd. Justice AK Sikri to make all news channels, members or otherwise duty-bound to follow its directives and be liable for penalties. The NBA stated that the penalties, as existing under the mechanism, could be made more stringent by an order of the top court.

At present, in the absence of statutory powers with NBSA, news channels, including NBA members, are not bound to follow its decision if they believe it is too harsh or arbitrary. Many a time, they chose not to implement NBSA’s orders. Some even preferred to walk out of NBA.

Except for news, the other self-regulatory body, ASCI (Advertising Standards Council of India), has turned out to be effective only because the MIB conferred statutory recognitions to it under the advertisement code under the Cable Television Networks (Amendment) Rules, 2006. Be it a member or non-member, every advertiser comes under its ambit and are duty-bound to follow ASCI’s decisions. However, an advertiser is free to file an appeal in court in case of disagreement with a decision.

Who is going to benefit from two parallel self-regulatory bodies? The answer is “no one”.

When it is clear that the self-regulatory bodies are toothless without statutory powers, will the government or courts give teeth to both if they want them to work in real? The answer is “unlikely”.

It will be interesting to see the Supreme Court’s observations on the affidavit filed by NBA. But while the top court does that, media observers are of the view that both heads of the two self-regulatory bodies, who have been colleagues in the past in Supreme Court, should sit together in order to create one robust self-regulatory body, possibly by merging both rather than competing with each other on behalf of the news channels.

One of the sectoral experts spoke to suggested that both Justice Keher and Justice Sikri being judges of the Supreme Court should sit and discuss the issues and challenges faced by the news broadcasters and draft a common code for the news vertical in the interest of restoring credibility of news channels and the self-regulatory mechanism to stave off any government interference.

A source in NBA while agreeing that two parallel codes and bodies will make matters worse for the news channels, he believes the new code proposed by NBF is a watered-down version of the NBSA code, thereby indicating that NBA or the Ministry would find it difficult to accept it.

The bigger question is that given the size and scale of the ego clash between NBA and NBF, believes the I&B Ministry should step in and engage both retired judges to draft a common code and mechanism to self-regulate news channels.

This is also in line with the Ministry’s affidavit filed last month in the Supreme Court in the Sudarshan TV matter, where it suggested that the self-regulatory mechanism could be strengthened rather than imposing further regulatory burdens.

The government in the affidavit said that membership of NBA and NBF, not being compulsory, does require examination as no broadcaster can be compelled to become a member of any of the voluntary organisations compulsorily.

“This question is under examination of the Central Government as regards the manner and procedure to ensure one statutory umbrella mechanism redressal of grievances while completely ensuring journalistic freedom, honouring and respecting the freedom of speech and expression and ensuring a mechanism which would ensure impartiality,” it said.

“Any further regulation of electronic and print media by this Hon'ble Court either by way of guidelines or providing for any redressal mechanism would incentivise broadcasters to use electronic media less and telecast / publish the same thing on digital platforms which would remain unregulated despite having wider reach without any corresponding responsibility or obligation,” the government said while pressing the need for regulation for web-based digital media, which includes “web magazines” and “web-based news channels”, “web-based news-papers” as these only have a very wide reach but are completely uncontrolled.

Now it is in the hands of the I&B Ministry to intervene and club the two parallel self-regulatory bodies and give it statutory powers to make it far more effective and inclusive.

However, all sectoral experts we spoke to doubt if the Ministry will interfere in this matter for their own reasons, suggesting that the power struggle between the two bodies will only benefit the government. But the larger question is, does the government’s affidavit, and statements by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar on the state of media, hold any substance? If they do, the government must act sooner than later in this regard.

Arjan Kumar Sikri Jagdish Singh Khehar