The strident protests that have been provoked by the Women’s Reservation Bill call to mind another piece of legislation—the Broadcast Bill—which faces resistance every time there’s an attempt to introduce it in Parliament. In fact, so powerful is the opposition—by the media in this case—that ministers and even governments have been shaken.
In 2007, when discussions were resumed on the Bill, media organizations set up lobby groups such as the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and, more recently, the Broadcasting Editors Association (BEA), as self-regulation initiatives to counter the move.
The push for regulation by the state has been opposed on the grounds that media independence is an integral part of the democratic framework and it can’t be regulated by those outside the industry, especially the government. The argument based on the freedom of expression ignores the landmark Supreme Court judgement of 1995, which said: “The right of free speech guaranteed by Article 19 (1) (a) does not include the right to use air waves, which are public property.”
Since then, almost every court across the country has passed numerous judgements putting pressure on the government to bring in content guidelines and/or set up independent regulatory bodies to look into these issues.
The broadcasters say that groups such as NBA have been able to exercise self-restraint and that the quality of content and news coverage has improved over the past one year. Even if we assume this to be true, the 14 members of NBA are not even a quarter of India’s news channels and represent roughly less than one-tenth of all broadcasters in the country. What about smaller, local and regional news channels? What about other genres of broadcasters, who also violate codes and push the envelope to cut through the clutter?
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NBA’s argument is that the very attempt to put in place statutory norms will stifle attempts at self-regulation. The idea of a regulator to be set up by an act of Parliament has not been welcomed and media organizations have sought more time be given for NBA self-regulatory authority to evolve.
While bodies such as NBA can come up with codes, will they be able to exert pressure on members (who compete with each other) to comply? Can a self-regulating mechanism ensure compliance by members and enforce sanctions and penalties in the case of non-compliance?
NBA’s second annual report (2008-09) reports that its self-regulatory body considered 20 complaints against members for violations of the code of ethics. In two cases, the authority sent a show-cause notice to the broadcasters. Earlier, one of the penalties had resulted in India TV walking out and later rejoining NBA with permanent membership of the board.
Even though news broadcasters have set up the regulatory mechanism, it doesn’t take away the relevance or urgency of any of the three main contentions before the nation.
The first is the Broadcast Bill—the overarching regulation that looks into contentious issues such as cross-media regulation, foreign investment and public service obligations, besides the setting up of statutory bodies like an independent media commission to address the various issues thrown up by an ever-evolving industry. There have thus far been three variations of the Bill that have sought to be unsuccessfully introduced in Parliament since 1997.
Secondly, the regulatory setup or independent commission always got wrapped up with the Bill and has never been discussed extensively as a separate entity. Currently, the ministry of information and broadcasting looks at all licensing, policy and content issues while the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India oversees tariff issues. There are enough examples of such independent bodies both in India (such as the Election Commission) and outside (such as British media regulator Ofcom), but this has remained buried in the still-elusive Bill.
The third critical issue is a content code. Based on self-regulatory principles, an inter-sectoral committee set up by the ministry did frame draft guidelines, but these did not go down too well with the broadcasters, especially news channels.
All these critical issues are inter-related, but each has a clearly defined role and relevance in our media landscape. Self-regulation by the broadcasters and peer bodies such as NBA will always be required and will play an important role, but it won’t be sufficient to address the interests of all stakeholders in this chaotic media ecosystem. How long can broadcasters delay the inevitable? Can’t they hear the voices of our parliamentarians, the judiciary, civil society, citizens and parents anxious for a more accountable and concerned media?
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies.
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