In a recent affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) said that the News Broadcasters and Digital Association (NBDA) is attempting to establish monopolistic control over the complaint redressal mechanism for news broadcasters.
This move, according to the Ministry, aims to exempt them from statutory accountability and potential regulatory actions.
The Centre has filed an affidavit in response to a petition filed by the NBDA (formerly known as the News Broadcasters Association).
The petition challenges the Bombay High Court's critical observations against the self-regulatory framework for the media. The High Court's observations came in a judgment passed in January 2021 while deciding a batch of PILs questioning the media trial in the actor Sushant Singh Rajput death case.
During a hearing in August, a bench composed of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala and Justice Manoj Misra raised concerns regarding the lack of effectiveness of the self-regulatory mechanism set up by the NBDA, namely, the News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority (NBSA).
While recognising the NBDA's opposition to pre-censorship or post-censorship of news channels through a statutory framework, the bench, headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, emphasised the importance of a robust self-regulatory system.
CJI Chandrachud raised concerns about the effectiveness of the current penalties imposed by the NBDA and highlighted the necessity for fines that are proportional to the revenue generated by news channels from broadcasting disputed news.
The bench also pointed out that the penalty for violations is Rs 1 lakh, a figure which was set in 2008.
In its affidavit, the Central Government clarified that the NBDA is considered a voluntary organisation and does not encompass all broadcasters within its membership.
“The NBDA comprises only 71 members out of the total 394 news broadcasting channels licensed by the central government,” the government affidavit said.
Furthermore, the Centre emphasised that the NBDA is not registered with the Central Government under the Cable Television Networks (Amendment) Rules, 2021 and has asserted that its members are not obligated to follow the rules relating to the complaints redressal structure.
The introduction of the Cable Television Networks (Amendment) Rules 2021 by the Centre aims to establish a statutory framework for redressing grievances, the government stated. “This framework places accountability and responsibility on broadcasters and their self-regulating bodies.”
The Central government said that it has allowed self-regulating bodies to handle citizen complaints related to violations of the Programme/Advertising Code as outlined in the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, it's important to note that this mechanism does not confer any legal or statutory authority upon these self-regulating bodies.
According to the Centre, the three-tier grievance redressal mechanism introduced by the recent CTN (Amendment) Rules, 2021 provides a statutory framework and allows self-regulating bodies to give appropriate advice to broadcasters for rectifying their actions, if there is a violation of the Advertising/Programme Code.
However, the government also clarified that it is the final authority when it comes to grievances regarding violation of the Codes:
"...the role of the Central Government is in ensuring that grievances of violation of the Codes are attended to and credible action taken against the broadcasters, remain paramount and the Central Government is the final authority for taking such action. Thus, by no stretch of imagination can it be said that a self-regulating body partakes the character of a statutory body/authority."
In its affidavit, the Central government has asserted that there is 'minimum interference of government authorities in the arena of journalism'.
It emphasised that government involvement only occurs in exceptional circumstances when there is a significant adverse impact on public good, public order, national security, and similar concerns.
The affidavit further stated, "Union of India has always protected journalistic freedom and has encouraged the policy of promoting self-restraint and self-regulation in the field of journalism".
The government said that there is a regulatory framework in place for regulating media which primarily consists of both "self-regulation" and "statutory regulation".
The statutory regulatory framework is contained in the Cable Television Networks Act and Rules and the Uplinking and Downlinking guidelines for TV channels.
The Centre said that it imposes self-restraint and has promoted a mechanism of self-regulation by journalists and media houses but this has been misunderstood by many voluntary federations.
Federations like the NBDA, have insisted that instead of statutory regulations of the Central Government, the Centre must recognise the News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority (NBSA) as the sole authority in news broadcasting, as a self-regulating body and notify the codes and guidelines of NBSA under the Programme Code as statutory codes, the Centre told the Apex Court.
Moreover, the central government informed the Supreme Court that the NBDA has challenged CTN amendment Rules 2021 before the Kerala High Court.
It has also informed the MIB that in view of the order of the High Court, it is not obligated to follow the rules relating to the complaints redressal structure.
The Centre said that the action of the NBDA is a clear breach of the High Court order since the court never said that broadcasters need not comply with CTN Rules.
"The High Court only mentioned that no coercive action' would be taken against the broadcasters, which clearly no way tantamounts to granting any stay or relieving the broadcaster of its obligations under the CTN Rules. Accordingly, the decision of the NBDA to not entertain any complaints of citizens for violation of the Programme Code under the CTN Rules is a blatant violation of law", the Centre has said in its affidavit.
The Centre has also highlighted that the I&B Ministry has officially recognised the self-regulatory body of the News Broadcasters Federation (NBF), another voluntary organisation, the Professional News Broadcasters Standards Authority (PNBSA).
The Centre has informed the court that the NBF is the only voluntary association and a self-regulatory body formally registered and officially recognised as Level-II Self-Regulatory for TV News Channels under the CTN Rules 2021 and for Digital News Platforms under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.
PNBSA is the only self-regulatory body which has been recognised by the CTN Rules 2021, as having the statutory authority to entertain and adjudicate viewers' grievances, the Centre has said.