Television

Draft Broadcast Bill: Big brother wants to do more than just watch

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The draft broadcast regulations that the government is trying to put in place has its merits and demerits, but what is shocking is the way the lawmakers are going about the whole thing, most of which is shrouded in secrecy.

That the draft Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill 2006, doing the rounds of ministries for feedback, is restrictive --- to put it mildly --- and draconian in parts is a story itself. But what is a bigger story is an attempt by the Congress-led coalition government to steamroll legislation through without taking industry stakeholders and others into confidence, thus making a mockery of democratic norms.

It is a calculated effort to muzzle the media in general and incapacitate the electronic medium, which has its own powers because of the impact of visuals, in particular.

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The attempt of the information and broadcasting ministry to quietly draft regulations for the Cabinet's consideration, while denying at the same time that anything of that sort even exists, amplifies that the blustering of I&B minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi is not all gas. It is a calculated effort to muzzle the media in general and incapacitate the electronic medium, which has its own powers because of the impact of visuals, in particular.

Cross media restrictions, powers bestowed on authorities to take action against the media and TV channels on the flimsiest of grounds, content censorship (which is being drafted separately, but could be made part of this Bill or legislation at a later stage) are all aimed at strangling the media.

What make things scary is that the proposed autonomous Broadcast Regulatory Authority of India (Brai) has been given powers that permit it to run amok if interpreted incorrectly by it. Especially when Brai's chief executive would be a serving government official of additional secretary's rank, drawing a salary from the government and, naturally, having allegiance to the government.

The flip side is that not all the clauses in the draft Broadcast Bill 2006 are new. Some of them do exist in some form or other in the Cable TV Network (Regulation) Act and other pieces of media legislation. References to cross media restrictions were made in the Broadcast Bill of 1997 too. And remember that never got past a joint parliamentary committee set up to examine it after being tabled in Parliament.

The 1997 Bill stated that a person or a company will be allowed to hold licences in only one of the following category of services: Terrestrial Radio Broadcasting, Terrestrial Television Broadcasting, Satellite Television or Radio Broadcasting, DTH Broadcasting, Local Delivery Services and any other category of services, which may be notified by the Central government.

In 1997, restriction of monopolies was more targeted towards newspaper houses. The Bill then had said that no proprietor of a newspaper will either be a participant with "more than 20 per cent interest in or control a body corporate, which is the holder of a licence to provide a licensed service under this Act."

Without criticizing a government's right to make a law, what needs to be seen in a broader context is the way that right is used in a democratic setup.

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This time round, the government has allowed interest in various segments of the media business, but capped them so low that effective concentration of power is totally neutralised to the extent of threatening to destroy various business models.

Without criticizing a government's right to make a law, what needs to be seen in a broader context is the way that right is used in a democratic setup.

If we examine the draft of the content regulation, prepared by a sub-panel of a 30-member committee overseen by I&B secretary SK Arora, it hints at stringent content regulation, particularly for news channels. If okayed by lawmakers in its present state, it could well be the end of sting operations and coverage of issues where high profile politicians and personalities are involved.

Sample this part: "TV channels must not use material relating to a person's personal or private affairs or which invades an individual's privacy unless there is an identifiable public interest reason for the material to be broadcast."

Who decides what constitutes an individual's privacy? The government or the regulator? What this means of course is that it's all up for interpretation.

It is this scope for interpretation that is the most fearful aspect of this bill. More so since the onus of proving identifiable public interest lies with the TV channel and not the other way round.

Additionally, the flat-footedness of the media industry and lack of consensus on important issues amongst the various stakeholders is incomprehensible, to say the least. The surprise that the draft Broadcast Bill 2006 --- even if it's an early draft for argument's sake --- has sprung on the TV industry, shows that people have been caught napping. Or, the industry thought the government was just talking gas.

Either way, Delhi seems to be having the last laugh. Hang on, maybe not yet. There may still be some time left for saner voices in the government to stand up.

But for that to happen, the media industry needs to project a united stand. Something like what was demonstrated when the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1988 had attempted to bring in a piece of legislation to muzzle the media. It took weeks of concerted opposition from Indian journalists to scupper an initiative to revise the law on defamation. It may be recalled that the government had rushed the Defamation Bill through the lower house of Parliament in August of that year.

When we last commented on the ramifications of the Broadcast Bill, we expressed the view that there is a feeling of déj? vu that it may be another exercise in futility.

It could well be in the industry's collective interest to ensure that the draconian aspects of the Broadcast Bill suffer the same fate as the Defamation Bill of 1988.

There are several ways of voicing their grievances and making sure that the industry voice reaches the powers-that-be. Indiantelevision.com believes it can function as a forum for debate, and would love to have comments from various constituents of the industry on the Broadcast Bill 2006.

Send in your mails to editor@indiantelevision.com. And let's work towards building a more robust television sector - keeping in mind the government, the industry and foremost of all, the consumer.

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