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The government’s short-sightedness and ad hoc approach to broadcasting have once again been revealed. In the first week of October, the cabinet announced revisions in broadcast licensing rules, raising eyebrows and provoking strong reactions from those who own channels.

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These modifications in licensing policy, after television channels have established themselves and built up viewership, are completely impractical, something that policymakers seem to have missed. Any such proposal now can only be viewed as a bullying tactic.

Within 24 hours of the revised uplink-downlink policy being announced, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and the Broadcast Editors Association (BEA) questioned the powers of the government to issue such a notification under the existing guidelines and the validity of such provisions in the light of self-regulation initiatives by the industry.

The most controversial modification for the broadcasters is the clause regarding the renewal of permission for TV channels. Renewal “will be considered for a period of 10 years at a time 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".

Also Read |PN Vasanti’s earlier articles

While licences for broadcasting cannot be for life, they should not be dependent on arbitrary means and subjective interpretation of outdated guidelines.

Till date, renewal has only been notional and not conditional. But to be fair, licence conditions, the Cable TV Act 1994 and many other notifications since then have provided arbitrary powers to the government to take action against broadcasters, including cancellation of the licence. However, these terms have been included more as deterrents and rarely been used.

This time, the specific condition of five violations of the Programme and Advertisement Code has given the threat a clear context.

According to the website of the ministry, it issued notices or advisories to 180 channels between 2004 and 2010. Since 2009, the ministry’s electronic media monitoring centre (EMMC) has been monitoring violations by television channels. In June-July this year, it received recommendations from EMMC to send show-cause notices to nearly 40 channels, including 18 news channels.

Even if the ministry takes serious action over violations noted by EMMC, there is no system or standard practice to implement and monitor this. Usually, an inter-ministerial committee (IMC) reviews all the cases brought to its notice and even calls on broadcasters to present their case, before sending notices or asking for the withdrawal of a programme or advertisement. More recently, violations have also been referred to the Indian Broadcasting Federation (IBF) and NBA.

Two prominent cases in recent times were those relating to Sach ka Samna and Big Boss. The IMC felt that some of the episodes were not suitable for unrestricted public exhibition and they violated parts of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994. They even advised the channels to air the programmes after 11pm. The broadcasters challenged the IMC advice in court though they later accepted the direction to broadcast the programmes late in the night.

In the meanwhile, peer associations such as NBA and the IBF have also taken noteworthy initiatives for better self-regulation. These include adopting stringent guidelines, providing a redressal forum, adopting monthly television ratings for news, etc. However, no self-regulatory provision can really be effective, particularly when such bodies are not representative of the majority, however well-intentioned they are.

In spite of the process followed by the ministry, taking on board Trai’s views and regular discussions with self-regulatory bodies such as NBA and IBF, the current debacle on the modification does warrant questions regarding policymaking and implementation in this sensitive sector.

Given the regulatory predicament, perhaps it is not too late for the government and broadcasters to consider an independent commission for broadcasting as suggested by the Supreme Court, as far back as in 1995.

P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.

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