In my last Fine Print column, I had argued that broadcast content regulation makes sense for India. Let me talk a bit more about why and what kind of regulation might help us get past the usual battles over censorship and muzzling free media.
In a country with nearly 400 television channels through cable, satellite and now digital terrestrial, mobile and IP (Internet Protocol) platforms, perhaps it is indeed time to seriously evolve a system of broadcast content regulation.
As channels struggle to differentiate from each other, Indian broadcasters continue to push the envelope with innovative programme concepts and content designed to catch viewers’ attention.
But the intense competition is also testing the limits of ethics, values and social repercussions from the content being thrown at the viewer.
As India’s broadcast sector comes of age, it is a good time to take a hard look at how several countries in the world monitor their broadcasters (see chart) and then see where India stands. The conclusion, I suspect, will be that India lags in terms of broadcasting content regulation.
Also See Monitoring The Broadcast Space (Graphic)
Like it or not, any proposed content regulation in India is usually viewed as censorship as is the case with the existing Indian censorship system of movies.
But internationally, due to the perceived social and cultural importance of broadcasting, various content regulatory models have always been applied to this industry. Such regulation has been either administered by government departments (often ministries of information), or placed with bodies independent of government, but with a statutory basis.
Increasingly, in those countries where regulation of broadcasting and electronic content has been held within the government, there is a move towards the formation of independent regulatory bodies. Regulators have traditionally worked within the provisions of empowering legislation, such as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), which deals with telecom sector issues.
Trai is also responsible for so-called carriage issues that have to do with content being distributed across cable and satellite services. The Press Council of India is also based on a similar model created for the print media in our country even though it is widely recognized for being quite inactive, unlike Trai, in either its “protecting” role, or being proactive. Given the poor reputation of censorship in India, there’s now a growing discussion on self-regulation. It would mean leaving the responsibility with the broadcasters to show restraint. However, recent evidence, including fake sting operations, public humiliation of a young girl on a reality dance show and controversy over using actual ongoing court cases as plots for soap operas, suggests that self-control is quite unlikely amid a mushrooming of competitive broadcast companies, all hunting for television eyeballs. Meanwhile, formal mechanisms, such as licensing and the imposition of codes, are less feasible in an environment where there are potentially myriad content sources.
Within India’s complex, dynamic and evolving media environment, one alternative form of regulation that is working in some countries, such as Australia, is a concept called co-regulation.
I, for one, believe that co-regulation is the way to go for Indian broadcast media. Co-regulation is essentially cooperative forms of regulation that are designed to achieve public objectives and that contain elements of self-regulation as well as of traditional command and control regulation. The prime benefits of co-regulation are perceived to be the expertise and flexibility offered by a more specialized industry-based organization and also a detached regulatory organization that, nevertheless, has a clear system of legal backstops and accountability.
Given the current distrust between key stakeholders— private broadcasters, government, civil society and viewers—this model of co-regulation could be an option that could very well break the current impasse in the unregulated broadcast content filling Indian air waves.
While no system is perfect, it’s time we stopped posturing and started evolving a system that helps meet the larger goals.
In my next column, I will discuss protective regulatory mechanisms, such as codes of broadcasting practice and complaint addressable procedures, that could work in India.
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P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization, Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which will run every other Friday, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org