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Government takes a shot at regulation

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With the information and broadcasting ministry seeing two ministers, two secretaries --- not to talk about other officials being reshuffled ---- and a string of litigations relating to media guidelines within a span of 365 days, it couldn’t have been more eventful for the government. A senior ministry official aptly said, “The amount of research work concerning various policy issues and court cases that we had to do in 2005 is quite amazing. The changes at the top added to new pressures.”

All policy decisions in 2005 were taken when Jaipal Reddy (left) was the former I & B ministry. His successor Priyaranjan Das Munshi has a tough act to follow.

From that apt summation arise numerous stories and angles that kept the government busy with loads of paper work and running around where the underlying message was: revisit existing media policies and structure new ones. The rationale being that the government needed to protect its turf (read, control) even at the cost of looking interventionist.

If the cricket rights-related court cases inadvertently brought the government within their radar screens --- that gave some sleepless nights to the law ministry --- an average Indian’s quest to seek legal redressal on any media issue definitely made the policy-makers give another hard look at policies and raise the question whether additional regulation was needed or not. In most cases, the answer came out as `yes.’

Take, for example, the media policies that were re-visited during 2005.

First there was CAS, which fortunately did not give major heartburns to the government this year as the issue was soft-pedaled, followed by the FM radio broadcasting guidelines (finally implemented in a new avatar), the syndication and foreign investment rules for the print media, the censorship laws for films and music videos and the DTH guidelines.

And, mind it, in most of the aforementioned cases hectic lobbying was taking place for and against various rules, not to mention the penchant for filing cases. In some cases, the government lost face too, prompting it to retaliate later with stringent amendments to existing regulations.

If the Bombay High Court ruled in favour of petitioners, high profile newspaper editor MJ Akbar and associates, in a case relating to re-printing and publishing content from The International Herald Tribune in India under the syndication rules, the I&B ministry after some months unveiled new syndication and other guidelines for the print media vis-?-vis foreign publication that seemed liberal, but was restrictive when the fine prints were read.

In a way, various court cases --- especially those related to cricket telecast rights involving pubcaster Doordarshan --- also acted as a catalyst in firming up government’s plans to bring about regulation giving itself discretionary powers and control. The revised uplink policy and the first ever downlink guidelines, which have been put in place upsetting many in the industry, can be cited as examples.

That the government was mulling amending the two guidelines cannot be disputed. But certain clauses, like the one relating to sharing of sports content with Prasar Bharati on a mandatory basis (that has raised the heckles of private sports broadcasters with Ten Sports and ESPN Star Sports again moving the court contesting such a diktat in November-December), were inserted forcefully and goes to show that the policymakers wanted to tighten the screws on private broadcasters.

I&B ministry secretary SK Arora: he will have a vital role to play in 2006

Bringing in various industry bodies in the act of lobbying against such legislation at a time when similar examples prevail elsewhere in the world in some form or other didn’t help matters.

As a senior I&B ministry official pointed out, “If the same broadcasters could follow rules and regulations, stringent or otherwise, in other countries like China, Singapore, Australia and the US, why are they so upset about them in India? Do they want to have a free run in a country and still not pay back the market that’s the largest for them in Asia?”

Certain riders in the downlink guidelines --- a historic move from the government’s point of view --- could be debated as stringent, but what cannot possibly be disputed is the government’s intention to bring about a regulatory framework in the broadcast and entertainment industry with technology breaking down access barriers and hundreds of TV channels and content delivery platforms emerging for Indians.

The government did touch on most media-related issues in 2005. But what should be done in 2006 is to try having a more consensual approach instead of a confrontationist-cum-interventionist one as an all-round bonhomie does make for a good business environment, which, ideally, is the government’s aim as that is likely to have many beneficial offshoots for the country in general.

How the government handles the content regulation issue --- primarily whether Indians are mature enough for adult fare and movies on TV --- being debated at the moment, will be an indicator of things to come.

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