Television

Peace TV saga & absence of rule of law

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The Peace TV saga after the Dhaka terrorist attack just before Eid and the brouhaha created over availability of an unlicensed channel in Indian television homes highlights yet again rules and regulations have to be applied uniformly and stringently.

The Indian government woke up suddenly issuing gag orders on distribution platforms when the general media in the country went to town regarding Peace TV. The media alleged Peace TV and the Mumbai-based Islamic tele-evangelist Zakir Naik’s sermons aired on the channel could have instigated the Bangladeshi terrorists. All these allegations were based on some interpretation of a report in a Bangladeshi newspaper.

That the Bangla newspaper subsequently clarified its report stating categorically that it had never said the terrorists were `inspired’ by Naik’s sermons is a completely another story because the Indian media, by and large news channels, ignored the clarification.

However, the fact stands that Peace TV is not licensed to air in India and had been denied landing rights by the Indian government several times in the past. Still, the channel was available on Indian networks and the sermons online.

Similarly, several Pakistani TV channels too are available in some parts of the country (crackdown on illegal retransmissions do happen from time to time, government officials insist) as also Chinese radio stations in border areas.

So, the question is: how come an unlicensed TV channel officially denied permission to broadcast in India was still reaching Indian TV homes?

The answer lies in apparent laxity in implementing and upholding existing regulations on the part of Indian policy-makers, regulators and law enforcing agencies. In some cases it may also be local-level indulgences despite knowing that a certain regulation had been breached.

Because in India most such issues boil down to majority vs. minority yardstick with the victimisation syndrome kicking in --- all in the name of certain democratic rights --- regulatory breaches are overlooked or rule of the law not enforced. Until one such breach kicks up crap all round; like the Peace TV affair recently did.

Historically speaking, as India opened up to satellite TV revolution from early 1990s and rules were lax (downlink licence or landing rights were terms not known to Indian policy-makers then) many TV channels invaded the Indian skies and homes. Some of them were bad (read propagandist), some indifferent, but largely most were entertaining.

As successive Indian governments woke up to the power of TV propaganda in whipping up unpalatable frenzy and jingoism, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) started formulating rules and regulations to isolate TV channels, mostly uplinked from outside India, from entering Indian homes via cable or other distribution platforms, which were perceived as not conducive for India.

One such historic policy drafting also saw a Broadcast Bill being introduced in Parliament in 1996 where the draft stated that certain categories of organisations (like political parties, NGOs, religious bodies, advertising agencies, etc) would be barred from owning and running TV channels.

The Bill never got enacted into a law and since then half-hearted attempts by other governments to bring similar Bills in Parliament failed to get necessary traction; mostly owing to a superstitious belief that whichever government tries to regulate the broadcast sector went out of power in New Delhi.

Historical incidents, notwithstanding, it has also been observed in India that any proposed regulation relating to cable and broadcast sector having the potential to affect powerful lobbies like political parties or religious bodies or their proxies get swept under the carpet.

Take, for example, broadcast carriage regulator TRAI’s two recommendations on media ownership, made after wide consultations with stakeholders. I am told both the reports are gathering dust in some corner of MIB.

Apart from suggesting many other things on the ownership issue, TRAI said in a set of recommendations in 2014, “...given that about six years have elapsed without any concrete action being taken by the Government, the Authority strongly recommends that its Recommendations of 12 November 2008 and 28 December 2012 may be implemented forthwith.”

The regulator’s recommendations came after issues relating to media ownership issue and vertical monopoly were referred to it by MIB.

Emboldened by the fact that MIB had put its weight behind it, TRAI (again) recommended in 2014 that political bodies, religious bodies, urban, local, panchayati raj, and other publicly funded bodies, Central and State government ministries, departments, companies, undertakings, joint ventures, and government-funded entities and affiliates be barred from entry into broadcasting and TV channel distribution sectors.

The regulator suggested exit routes for existing entities already into business, adding such a debarment could be implemented through an executive decision by incorporating the disqualifications into rules, regulations and guidelines as necessary.

But by 2014, MIB had already licensed many news and religious/spiritual TV channels and distribution platforms owned/managed by political parties, religious bodies (in one case a temple’s management committee) and/or their proxies for operation at pan-India and State levels.

And so, even the 2014 TRAI recommendations remain ignored, while at another level technology has outpaced or threatens to make obsolete the Indian process of policy making.

A colleague, while outlining the potential of Facebook Live (and other such techs like Twitter’s Periscope), recently commented it’s matter of time when Facebook Live will kick into India, dipping into the country’s smart-phone user base (250 million on last count) to give birth to the possibility of “hundreds of news channels on FB dishing out unadulterated, independent updates of developments.” Very few in Indian government would be tracking developments like FB Live.

In an age when technology is moving faster than policy-making, flat-footedness of Indian policy-makers and our general apathy towards rule of the law will hasten policy chaos resulting in arbitrary decisions being implemented.

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