Broadcast Bill 2007: A Review of Debates in the News

Public Missing in Broadcast Bill Debate: Ammu Joseph

Big Brother in Broadcast Bill: Broadcast & CableSat

My purpose is to find out debates around Draft Broadcast Bill 2007 in the news media. Above are the most important and relevant news pieces that I have reviewed. Piece 1 basically talks about the ongoing tussle between media and government on the issue of regulation. Piece 2 Talks about the most important but least debated angle of this debate i.e. despite having legitimate stake public is in no capacity to comment on public policies. Piece 3 traces the long history of government’s efforts to control media and media’s continuous counter efforts. And last but not the least piece 4 draws attention towards various efforts of monitoring and regulating media activities both by government and media but how all of them have eventually proved to be ineffective. It says that government is not the only culprit but media itself is responsible of giving government enough reasons to intervene.

In order to identify the aspects under discussion and the context under which draft Broadcasting Bill 2007 has been discussed I have analysed the online news archives, which include news reports, articles, opinions and features etc.

When I have started my research I was hoping to get the most relevant information on the sites of mainstream news media like websites of Hindustan Times and Times of India etc., but news mention of the bill was mostly in the industry specific blogs. For example Broadcast and CableSat1 is a monthly magazine which deals only with technological aspects of the broadcasting sector. Its readers include purchase decision makers in studios, production and animation houses, government and private broadcasters, MSOs, and DTH and IPTV operators. Other areas where I found required information were websites of Infochange2 and India together. They are online resource bases that provide news, views, perspectives and debates on crucial issues of sustainable development and social justice in India and South Asia. Their aim is to inform readers on issues that are increasingly being pushed into the margins by the mainstream media. They discuss on issues of poverty, agriculture, environment and government etc. Indiatogether specially, provides a platform to practitioners, scholars and artists to come up with their Ideas, insights and concerns on the issues of public interest. Discussions were limited in the mainstream news as I have mentioned earlier and were limited to the relatively low reach outlets like Daily News Analysis (DNA).

Among the various news pieces that I have found, following were the most important and relevant ones in terms of their content and timeline. All of them were published between 2007 and 2011 and they talk of all the three important stakeholders’ i.e. the government, media and public. Every piece is projecting a different view and all of them together in a way provide the summary of the whole story. Full citations of the four pieces that I have reviewed are as follows:

  • Media 2007: Much ado, less cheer (DNA), Dec 25, 2007, Agency: PTI
  • Public Missing in Broadcasting Bill Debate (India Together), Aug 15, 2007, By Ammu Joseph
  • Big Brother in the Broadcasting Bill (Broadcast & CableSat), Jan 04,2008
  • The Tricky Road to Media Regulation (Infochange media), March 11, 2011, By Siddarth Narrain

Coverage of the broadcasting bill whether it was in news reports, articles or in features consistently drives three key issues. First among them is “Broadcasting Bill curbs public’s right to information”. And following discussion will substantiate the above argument

  • Section 5 permits the Central Government, in times of war or ‘external threat’ to direct a service provider to stop broadcasting its service or transmit only those programmes that it allows . Section 6 permits the Central Government to issue similar orders but in, the much broader, ‘exceptional circumstances’. Both these provisions allow the Central Government to effectively pre-censor television channels and as the experience of the Emergency shows us, any power of pre-censorship given to the Central Government will be misused.
  • The Content Code creates several categories by which programs are supposed to be classified as ‘U’, ‘U/A’, ‘A’ and ‘S’. Channels are supposed to classify their programs based on guidelines contained in the Code. These guidelines are extremely subjective and may provide flimsy grounds upon which content may be censored. The code is replete with ill-defined terms that can be easily misused to curb freedom of expression.
  •  BRAI, which was proposed by the broadcast Bill 2007 as an independent regulatory authority is meant to merely implement policy determined by the government.5 Because the Bill gives far too overarching a role for the Central Government, from laying down policy, to nominating/selecting members of the BRAI, and the Public Service Broadcasting Council. Government has the power to fire any member of the BRAI on various grounds.

Besides this, 2007 was not the only time when government tried to control media but we have a long history. Emergency period declared by Indira Gandhi in 1972, News Policy for Broadcast Media (1982) etc have been criticised by various parties. Media never accepted the government hegemony and always criticised the government’s actions by saying that they contradict the freedom of speech and expression.

My next point will discuss how this right to freedom of speech and expression has been misused by the media itself.

“Media gives government enough grounds to intervene”. This statement is equally important as the previous one, because it would not be justified if we see only one side of the coin.

We have several instances of irresponsible journalism where media either manipulated the facts or created a whole new fake story. For example in Uma Khurana’s case6, media has in a way destroyed the life of an innocent teacher by conducting a fake sting operation. India TV showed her forcing school girls into prostitution which ultimately proved a complete lie. How can media just lie in front of the whole nation and made up stories that never actually happened!

In order to avoid these kinds of situations either government had to do something or media could itself monitor its activities. So, the nine-member News Broadcasting Standards Disputes Redressal Authority came into being in October 2008, which includes four editors from different news channels and four ‘eminent persons’ drawn from different walks of life. However, this body failed its first major test when television coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008 flouted a number of guidelines that broadcasters had themselves just instituted.

But NBA proved to be completely ineffectual when India withdrew from its membership after it has been found guilty of misusing and misquoting the interview of Farhana Ali7. And India TV accused the authority of being biased and partial with the TV Today group.

After all these examples we cannot just say that the government is only culprit in the whole situation but media itself is responsible of giving government all the right reasons to intervene into its matters. In my opinion, we cannot see the picture in just black and white, there are shades of grey also. In a democratic country media should be liberal as our right to freedom of expression explains, but in the age of media determinism, “responsibility” is the word that it SHOULD NOT forget. After these cases, I think it has become very difficult for any of us to trust media completely. On the one hand industry is blatantly opposing the control of government but on the other hand it is giving all the sensible reasons to curb its freedom.

Government formulates policies and make bills for the welfare of the public, as it says, aim and objectives of media are to preserve public’s rights. But, where is public in this whole situation? This is the biggest question of today which most of us just ignore.

In the landmark 1995 judgment relating to the broadcast media the Supreme Court of India made it very clear that the rationale for media regulation is the public interest. Engagement of public in formulating policies and bills of the government should be our prime focus if we intend to implement them for their benefit, says Ammu Joseph in her article.

He suggested that the civil society organisations must take part in initiating the debates on the role of public in formulating policies. “The need for public information and consultation is one aspect of the issue that has received little attention to date. Yet the primary objective of media regulation in a democracy is to preserve and protect citizens’ fundamental rights to information and freedom of expression. So citizens are in fact the most important stakeholders in media policy and regulation.” 8He highlighted the need of consultation paper on media regulation which should include responses from public on the aspects of regulation, ranging from structure to the content. And this consultation paper must be supplemented by information, including data on the present media scenario (both state and private), existing media-related legislation, and regulatory structures/mechanisms currently in operation. Along with this different case studies should also be provided so that public can easily compare and understand the implications of the process.

And the legislation should be drafted on the basis of feedback from all stakeholders, including the public.

Despite its legitimate stake public does not hold any position to comment on the public policies. Isn’t it pathetic! Even no known large-scale empirical study on public opinion has been conducted till date. At the same time it is also true that civil society has so far remained aloof from this issue, apparently unmindful of the importance and implications of media regulation in a democracy. What passes for debate on news television is often no more than sound and fury signifying nothing, and participation in the increasingly ubiquitous ‘sms polls’ conducted by those channels can hardly substitute for actual public engagement with current events and issues. The need for public information and consultation is one aspect of the issue that has received little attention to date. Yet the primary objective of media regulation in a democracy is to preserve and protect citizens’ fundamental rights to information and freedom of expression. So citizens are in fact the most important stakeholders in media policy and regulation.

Researcher’s Opinion

Cumulatively, Broadcasting Bill curbs public’s right to information, the media gives government enough grounds to intervene, and public is missing in the broadcasting bill debate. These are the three key issues that all my news pieces consistently talked about.

This tug of war between government and media will continue unless and until public demands its role. My point is, if every debate revolves around the public then public should be in a capacity to participate in debates which are actually meant for its benefit. Because it’s democracy where everybody has equal rights and it’s just not the matter of right but it is the duty of public to demand its role in the public debates and be in a capacity to decide for itself. It’s not a totalitarian state where public act as spectators and appoints others to take decisions on their behalf. In democracy we have right to express ourselves freely and demand our rights.

There is a need to establish a TRULY autonomous body which has power to formulate rules and regulations to regulate mass media and if anyone violates that rule then it should be effective enough to punish that person/organisation who has been found guilty. This body should include eminent media scholars from different universities, media persons, and civil society members but with the condition that no criminal charges have ever been charged on them. No accusations

have been made on them. Every possible precaution should be taken into account before appointing them and the most important thing is to conduct a survey like census or election poll where opinions of each and every member of public could be considered and decisions then should be taken by keeping in mind the opinion of majority.

Till establishment of truly autonomous public authority, media regulation will remain debate rife with confusion.

References:

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About sadianasr

Road safety x digital, social, policy, media at SaveLife. AIR, Urban Justice, CAIR, ICGC, UNDP alum.

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