The broadcast industry has voiced its concern over the recently amended Cable Television Networks (Amendment) Rules, 2021, which many fear may trample upon the right to speech and lead to censorship.
Speaking at a virtual conference a few days ago, MG Radhakrishnan, Editor, Asianet News Network, had said the amended rules give the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) more teeth, which is very frightening and is a throwback to the emergency days.
“With the amendment, there will be a three-tier governance system, but ultimately the buck is going to stop at the government level. This is very frightening. The power has always been with MIB but it is now further amended to give it more teeth. With this, an inter-departmental committee has statutory power,” he had said during a session at PubVision, a gathering of digital publishing companies organised by the Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI).
Last month, the Centre had amended the Cable Television Network Rules to provide a three-layer statutory mechanism for the redressal of complaints relating to content broadcast by television channels.
With this move, the government aims to bring the television industry’s self-regulatory mechanism on a par with that for OTT players and digital news publishers, through the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.
The amended rules have mandated a three-layer grievance redressal mechanism – self-regulation by broadcasters, self-regulation by the self-regulating bodies of broadcasters and an oversight mechanism by the Central government.
A person can write to the broadcaster first to register his/her complaint in case of any grievance against a programme. The broadcaster has to acknowledge the complaint within 24 hours and dispose of it within 15 days. If the complainant doesn’t receive a response within 15 days or is dissatisfied with the response, they can appeal within 15 days to the self-regulating body (SRB), of which the broadcaster is a member. The SRB has to dispose of the complaint within 60 days. In case the complainant is still not satisfied, they can appeal to the Central Government for its consideration under the Oversight Mechanism.
At present, there is an institutional mechanism by way of an Inter-Ministerial Committee to address such grievances of citizens. With the amendment, this will be replaced by an Inter-Departmental Committee, which will be chaired by the Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and consisting of representatives from different ministries.
This has raised concerns among broadcasters about censorship. Speaking at PubVision, Radhakrishnan termed the recent legislations to regulate the media, including the IT Rules and the amendment to the Cinematograph Act, as draconian. He said it feels like a typical emergency situation once again.
Other broadcasters have raised similar concerns. An owner of a television network in Kerala said this amendment is ultra vires to the Constitution.
“Unlike the Press Council, which is much more democratic in nature, this is to bring in unnecessary restrictions and infringement on the media's freedom of speech. Our government should not do it,” he said.
He said the freedom of the press cannot be decided by bureaucrats. “Anybody could take any view. Bureaucrats will decide which news is right and which is wrong. In a democracy, where the media is the fourth pillar, why bring this kind of an unnecessary law?”
He said the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) may approach court against the amendment.
A senior official at a popular Hindi channel agreed that this amendment opens the gateway for censorship. However, he also believes that this was much-needed for the broadcast industry.
“This mechanism is much needed to the whole broadcasting system. If it comes under the MIB, they will take a sincere effort to curb fake news. In India, television news has become storytelling and news is the most influential medium. Currently, the associations just direct a day-long ban or ask for an apology. It doesn’t help curb media trials or fake news,” he said.
“This will give more teeth to the government and it can lead to censorship. There is this fear among the journalist community. But I would say censorship is happening anyway even now. At least now this will ensure that television news will focus more on facts than on cooked-up narratives,” he added.