Thank you for reviving the discussion on a content code for the broadcasting sector. All of us who are concerned about Indian media welcome the openness and freshness you have brought to the ministry. This has once again triggered hopes and expectations that we can look forward to a more responsible and vigorous media in India.
I would like to use this forum to consider two priorities that your ministry needs to look into urgently. One, an independent media commission that will address and coordinate all content and licence issues to do with broadcast and also print media. And second, thinking beyond existing content regulatory models— consider a co-regulation model, involving all stakeholders at different levels.
We are the only media space to have no independent regulator looking into content implications for our society, laws, values and markets. The media sector is also one of the few businesses that does not have any regulatory authority in spite of substantial commerce. I am sure you have been briefed on various issues including selling of editorial space, tampering of content to suit advertisers, private treaties and other such unethical practices diluting our media standing. Before such practices completely corrupt and destroy our media credibility, we need an independent commission to address and steer forward media to a more responsible direction. Such an authority is also an important condition for a free and independent media—the very basis of our democracy.
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The courts have repeatedly asked the ministry to look into the controversial content issues coming to the fore since the opening of this sector. Recently, your ministry put up on its website details of orders, warnings and advisories to various television channels from 2004 to August 2009. Based on the complaints received, a special committee at the ministry reviewed the violations as per the programme code of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act , 1995, and sent orders, warnings or advisories to the channels. This list encapsulates the scarce “content regulatory” efforts in our country for the numerous riotous television channels. The accompanying table summarizes this list.
It’s telling that in this list of 122 orders, an almost equal number of orders have been given on content violations related to advertisements (45) and news (47). Interestingly, the total number of orders passed till date are mostly against news channels. Some channels such as India TV have nine orders for violations. General entertainment channels are also not far behind in this list, with 33 orders to 21 channels. Also interesting to note is that only 13 language channels have been sent notices.
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For the broadcasters, this list may be appalling but for any ordinary viewer, this list is very inadequate and ineffective. There is something like a stalemate and the ministry (and the government) is often pitchforked into controversies. Another aspect of this stalemate is that states sometimes try to fire from the shoulders of your ministry or when pushed, take on the media on their own. This in some ways affects the nation’s image as a bastion of free media.
The perception is gaining ground that the government does not want to give up its control over the media on the one hand, and the media that is becoming a big business is also interested in stalling the arrival of an independent regulatory regime and the government is tacitly playing along, on the other. In this stalemate between the ministry and broadcasters, on “who” and “how” content can be made more responsible, the viewer is affected and suffers. It’s high time that we think of co-regulatory models that are more inclusive and encompass all from our diverse panorama.
Peer groups and associations such as IBF (Indian Broadcasters’ Forum) and NBA (News Broadcasters’ Association) have an important but limited role in the current open media ecosystem. We need to also involve all other stakeholders, including viewer forums, civil society, cultural groups, teachers, health experts, political analysts and researchers, besides representatives of all within the media sector. This can only be in a co-regulatory framework that works on different levels including at individual broadcaster level, peer monitoring, an independent media commission and as a last resort the judiciary. Such a system will allow all stakeholders to be equally involved and also encourage self-regulation.
India has an opportunity now to evolve a new co-regulatory framework that goes beyond the self-regulatory models in vogue today. We need a system that is more comprehensive and free of market and political forces in the long-term interest of Indian democracy. Within the ministry, there is an adequate bank of information available on broadcast regulatory models for preparing a framework for stakeholder consultations on the subject. We only need a dynamic and brave leader like you, who can take us through this impasse in making this a viable system for all. For this, we assure you all our support.
A concerned citizen, mother and a communication/media researcher.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint