In modern democracies, electronic media, especially news channels, set the terms of public debate and discussion. If for no other reason than this, governments are keen to be on the “correct” side of the proceedings. If this is not possible, very often efforts are made to influence and control the medium.
The revised uplinking and downlinking guidelines for the broadcasting sector approved by the Union cabinet on Friday, while not amounting to influence and control, take a stride in that direction. Predictably, TV channels are up in arms. The Union information and broadcasting ministry has sneaked in a fresh clause that says “renewal of the permissions of TV channels will be...subject to the condition that the channel should not have been found guilty of violating the terms and conditions of permission including violations of the Programme and Advertisement Code on five occasions or more”.
In essence, if a channel is served five violation notices, the government will not renew its licence. Broadcasters, especially those in the news business, dread being taken to task over flippant complaints and finally being pushed off air.
Ostensibly, this is a move to stall frivolous firms from entering the broadcasting sector. It has, for obvious reasons, shifted the debate to control over content, threatening the freedom of the electronic media.
The timing of slipping the new clause into the uplinking and downlinking policy, too, is questionable. The government has been criticized intensely in recent months, with the electronic media leading the attack on corruption. The new clause is a subtle message to the channels to “behave” in case they want to retain their licences. For why else would it rake up the content issue again, considering there are sufficient checks on programming in the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act as well as the old uplinking and downlinking policy?
All television channels are governed by an advertising and programming code that offers guidelines on staying clear of offensive programming as part of the cable TV Act. The existing uplinking and downlinking guidelines have safeguards including cancellation of licences if the channels don’t comply. The message to broadcasters is: Big Brother is watching.
The move is equally surprising considering broadcasters already have a self-regulatory mechanism in place in agreement with the ministry. Interestingly, the broadcast industry and the government’s earlier attempts to form an independent regulatory body failed. The two could not agree on the constitution of the authority and broadcasters feared the regulator may not be sufficiently independent.
Self-regulation is the best option, but if there’s a need to bring erring channels to book, an independent and sufficiently empowered regulator, such as Sebi or RBI, should be established and not a toothless print media watchdog like the Press Council of India.
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