Convergence Bill likely to be tabled on Tuesday

The long awaited Communications Convergence Bill 2001, which has far-reaching implications on how the media industry is to be run in India, is expected to be tabled in parliament on Tuesday, industry sources say.

According to them, the final version of the bill, which has gone through a number of modifications, has incorporated a number of draconian clauses, putting paid to any hopes industry watchers had that the government might be willing to ease up on its obsession with controlling and regulating all things in the media domain.

A new element that has been introduced in the final version is that within the ambit of the high-powered super regulator - the Communications Commission of India - there will be two separate bureaux - a carriage bureau and a content bureau.

According to sources, information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj had been lobbying to get all content, including that relating to the Internet, under the ambit of the content bureau. Swaraj wanted communications regulation to be delinked from the bill, the sources say. The information technology and communications ministries strongly opposed this pointing out that it negated the whole concept of convergence. It was after this that a compromise formula was adopted where there would be two bureaux.

There is bound to be a great deal of overlap when it comes to issues of jurisdiction and it remains to be seen how the two bureaux are going to operate without constantly stepping on each other's toes.

There are some points to ponder upon though. The content bureau will be responsible for all issues that come under that head, including regulation and laws relating to the Internet. Industry experts also believe that if such strict regulations were put in place wherein companies are forced to obtain a licence to transact electronically, it will have an adverse affect on foreign investments in India. Their reason: why would anyone go through such complex processes and red tape when they can easily invest in countries where no such licences or permits are required.

Even as far as the print media goes, the picture is not a happy one. Reports say an innocuous sounding clause (Chapter 14, 63) in the bill permits the central government to detain press messages and articles of all those journalists who are NOT accredited with the governments PR set-up, and the Press Information Bureau (PIB).

The clause empowers anyone - central, state or any authorised officer - to intercept any e-mail, phone conversation or data transmission of non-accredited journalists on any communication network (internet, cellular phones).

Service providers will have to monitor and intercept messages and failure can lead to a sentence of up to seven years.

The final judgment on the bill will however, have to wait till its tabling. The bill will be piloted by the communications ministry. If and when the bill does get passed, India will become only the second Asian country, after Malaysia, to have a Convergence Bill.

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