B'cast bill out; convergence in?

NEW DELHI: The ambivalence of the government continues over legislation relating to various broadcast issues. After having professed the need for a broadcast bill, the information and broadcasting ministry, which had been previously reticent to a convergent regime, is doing a rethink.

Ministry sources said that though I&B minister Jaipal Reddy is unlikely to be hurried into taking decisions, he is "warming up" to the idea of reviving the Convergence Communication Bill, which lapsed with the change in political guard in Delhi.

"The minister is increasingly warming up to the idea that instead of bringing in a broadcasting bill, the convergence bill should be re-worked and put up as a proposed piece of legislation in association with the IT and telecom ministry," an official in the I&B ministry said.

The I&B ministry under Sushma Swaraj and then Ravi Shankar Prasad, during the previous government's regime, had not been in favour of an omnibus convergence legislation encompassing the sectors of infotech, telecommunication and broadcasting. It had resisted any move by the then telecom ministry to sort out issues pointed out by a parliamentary panel that had studied the Convergence Communication Bill and suggested over 70 amendments.

Since reworking the Convergence Bill is likely to take more time because various turfs have to be protected, an independent regulatory body for the broadcast sector may come about in the near future with the help of an executive order, the government official pointed out, adding that the I&B ministry, in the interim, would continue to have the final word on regulating content on TV and radio channels and on other platforms.

But one thing seems to be sure: Reddy is angling to end Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai)'s jurisdiction over cable and broadcast sectors --- a responsibility that was thrust on Trai just before last parliamentary elections earlier this year owing to political reasons.

Meanwhile, work on downlinking laws too is continuing and indications from the I&B ministry are that a Cabinet note is likely to be prepared on the issue after the present session of Parliament comes to an end, which, because of Opposition boycotts of proceedings and other turmoil, happens to be today.

"The basic structure for a proposed downlinking law is complete and once the go-ahead comes through, a Cabinet note would be prepared for its consideration," the ministry official said, however, adding that this too may take some time.

As part of the downlinking law, the government proposes to have a section listing out events of national importance whose telecast rights have to be given to the terrestrial broadcaster, Doordarshan, on a mandatory basis irrespective of the fact who has exclusive rights for those events.

There would also be an arbitration clause for disputes, which has to take place at least two months before an event happens.

Now comes the big question: if the regulatory framework, aided by instigated and even non-instigated cases on various broadcasting issues (like the DTH and porn factor), is unlikely to settle down before end-2004, what would happen to newer technologies and newer players seeking to enter India or expand their existing businesses? What would happen to Tata-Star's quest for a DTH licence hanging fire at the I&B ministry?

Take a cue from what Reddy informed Parliament earlier this week when quizzed on various issues, including DTH and Tata-Star's venture: no time frame can be given for processing of such issues.

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