Regulators

Comment: 3 areas that new MIB minister Rathore needs to target

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In a recent reshuffle of his cabinet colleagues and their portfolios initiated by PM Modi, a surprise move was not Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) minister Smriti Irani’s removal, but handing the independent charge of the portfolio to her till-now junior, Rajyavardhan Rathore.

There is some merit in giving Rathore full responsibility of MIB, which was conceptualised by the nation’s founding fathers to be the government interface with the media and public, in general. That MIB could have lost its relevance in this digital age - an issue being debated in certain quarters - is another story altogether for some other time. Why Rathore at the helm of MIB seems just what the doctor advised?

First, he is young and suave. Second, he comes with a good pedigree of being an army officer and an Olympic medalist. Third, he’s comparatively young and has built a youth and people-friendly image, apart from his work as independent charge holder at Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports - his latest initiative on Twitter, #HumFitTohIndiaFit , aimed at encouraging fitness by inviting celebs is already a hit on social media.

As Rathore has served as a junior MIB minister long enough to get to know the complex issues that come with the terrain, it is expected that he is best suited to address the challenges being faced by the media industry. But for that, he needs to aim at the following three areas and hit the bull’s eye.

Content Regulation

The previous MIB minister waded into controversies because of her largely perceived unpopular move to create a panel in April this year to explore regulations for online media/news portals and online content. It did not help her or the government’s cause as this announcement, though being hinted at for several months, came close on the heels of a widely protested move to cancel the accreditation of journalists if found peddling fake news, while the government did not define clearly what constituted a fake news. Though the order was rescinded at the behest of the PM’s Office, the online content committee lingers on directionless and with nobody willing to father the baby presently. That this move antagonised not just online journalists, but also social media players (many of whom are backed and funded by government’s sympathisers) and video-on- demand portals is a story in itself.

Rathore knows media in India enjoys certain constitutional freedoms, including the right to exercise freedom of speech and expression. Therefore, any move targeted at “regulating” such content shall only be interpreted as silencing criticism. That the online committee is packed with government officials with minuscule industry representation and zero presence of online media raises questions on government’s motives.

What’s more, doubts have also been raised on the jurisdictional propriety of MIB to create such a committee in the first place. The government allocation of business rules that determine the remit of various government agencies clearly highlights that for all “policy matters relating to information technology; electronics; and Internet” only Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeITY) is competent to make decisions. The ambit of MIB is limited only to “the enunciation and implementation of the law relating to radio and television broadcasting in India by private Indian companies or Indian nationals”.

With multiple laws applicable on online content, there seems to be no need of any additional regulation for online content, though MeITY could think otherwise, but it’s for it to take a call. Still, a self-regulating mechanism that places uniform standards over user-generated content platforms and video-on-demand portals is the need of the day. This shall also be in line with Rathore’s views expressed after assuming full charge at MIB where he stressed upon self-regulation as the only means of regulating media.

As the final authority at MIB now, Rathore needs to walk the talk on online content regulation and, probably, let the committee set up by his predecessor die a natural death.

Online content aside, in the world of traditional broadcasting there is a need to strengthen the already established self-regulatory mechanisms such as the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) of the IBF and a similar self-regulatory set-up of the NBA India.

Ease of Doing Business

It would be an understatement to say that the past year has been a difficult period for the Indian media and entertainment (M&E) sector what with after-effects of demonetisation of high-value currency notes and a new tax regime of GST rolled out last year. The story remains the same for ease of doing business in the sector as well.

On this aspect, Rathore could focus on the recommendations made by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on`Ease of Doing Business in Broadcasting Sector’ and implement them in letter and spirit.

A unilateral decision by the previous leadership of MIB to impose a processing fee of Rs 100,000 per day/channel on temporary live uplinking of events (such as sports) and the same amount for seeking minor amendments (like change in name, logo, etc) has been causing heart burns.

What was the rationale behind such moves to review processing fees? Allegedly non-revision for several years and that such a move could bring in some revenue for the government. But, should a government use licensing/permission fee as means of revenue maximisation? Probably, no.

Another issue that demands attention from Rathore is the denial of permissions by DoS to satellite TV channels using private satellite capacity, especially foreign. Here, the newly appointed minister shall have to display his trademark leadership and try to resolve the concerns of his constituents (TV channels, DTH operators, teleport operators, etc) vis-a-vis DoS.

Building an Investment Friendly Environment

In the recently held global Asia Media Summit 2018 in New Delhi, PM Narendra Modi said that Asia has emerged as a promising region for media businesses and offers opportunities for international cooperation. This statement highlights his government’s push for increasing investment inflow across sectors of the Indian economy – including creative industries such as M&E.

In this respect, Rathore will have to hit the road running --- which he has done --- and look at all the factors impeding investments in the sectors under him. This could necessitate reviewing licensing conditions and guidelines, which many in the industry believe hamper investments.

Can Rathore bite the bullet and recreate the magic that he unveiled one fine day years back to get India the first Olympic medal in an individual event? Certainly, he can. Keep tuned in for the next episode.

Also Read :

MIB clears TV channel applications; Rathore calls for stakeholder meets

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Comment: MIB's botched whip on fake news akin to testing waters

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