Govt hunts for ways to block airing of illegal foreign channels

Govt hunts for ways to block airing of illegal foreign channels

New Delhi: Similar to what it is effecting in the case of BlackBerry services, the government is now seeking to acquire a technological solution that will allow it to block direct downlinking of satellite television channels distributed through direct-to-home (DTH) services and cable operators.

However, a big difference is that this would require, unlike in the case of Research In Motion Ltd, or RIM, which provides BlackBerry services, compliance from a slew of companies including DTH operators such as Tata Sky, Dish TV, Sun DTH or multi-system operators such as Hathway Cable and Datacom Ltd, DEN Networks Ltd or IndusInd Media and Communications Ltd from the Hinduja group. The move is being considered to stop illegal broadcast of some foreign television channels in the country, distributed largely by local cable operators.

According to senior government officials, the step was contemplated in the aftermath of riots that broke out in Jammu and Kashmir following reports about the alleged desecration of the Holy Quran in the US.

The news was aired by an Iranian television channel that was downlinked by local cable operators in the valley, leading to protests in the valley, resulting in several deaths.

“A series of meetings involving officials from the Information and Broadcasting ministry, home ministry, intelligence officials and other stake holders have taken place regarding illegal broadcasting of foreign television news channels in the country," a senior government official, who attended the meeting, said on condition of anonymity.

He said the government has taken a view that a technological solution must be developed to block direct down linking of channels in real time. “What if the Supreme Court asks us to immediately stop broadcast of illegal channels in the country? We have to be prepared for the future in advance," the official added.

The intelligence agencies estimate that around 12-15 channels, including Pak TV, Peace TV and Press TV, are broadcast illegally in India. Foreign channels need downlinking permission from the Indian government through their Indian agents.

Currently, the government does not have any technological solution to stop the signals being broadcast. However, the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, provides for a programming code that disallows broadcasting any content that could affect the integrity of the nation. The Act also does not permit cable operators to carry channels that are not registered by the central government for being viewed in India.

If the operators do not follow the rules, the government has the power to seize and confiscate cable operators’ equipment.

But the government is now exploring options to be able to instantly block channels.

“The government is considering the issue seriously and we will look at putting technological intervention in place," confirmed K.S. Rejimon, deputy secretary who deals with cable-related issues in the ministry of information and broadcasting. He said it was too early to comment on just what these technological capabilities would be.

While some DTH players say the move is unlikely to affect them, others question the feasibility of such technological intervention.

“We don’t think the measure can impact us because DTH is a fully addressable platform which shows channels with downlinking permission," said Salil Kapoor, chief operating officer of Dish TV.

However, a media industry expert who works for a broadcasting network said no country uses technology to block television signals. “Most countries have laws in place and enforce those properly," he said.

According to the same expert, technology cannot prevent free-to-air channels since they are not encrypted and can be downlinked easily.

A consultant to a large cable network, or multi-system operator (MSO), agreed. “We don’t need technology. We have rules in place that need to be enforced effectively," he said.

According to industry estimates, there are nearly 60,000 cable operators in India. “Of these, probably 25,000 are affiliated to large multi-system operators. The rest remain under the radar and unmonitored. Effective monitoring of these cable distributors should be the focus rather than new technology," said the consultant.

Smaller cable operators tend to downlink channels on popular demand and show them illegally. K.K. Sharma, chief editor of Cable Quest, the trade magazine published by the Cable Operators Federation of India, said demand for channels that do not have the downlinking permission in India seems to be surging in metros such as Delhi and Mumbai as well as in Jammu and Kashmir.

“In pockets like Chandni Chowk in Delhi, such channels are shown freely," Sharma said adding that besides religious channels, such as Pak TV, Peace TV and Q TV, cable operators also downlink adult channels from countries such as Taiwan and Thailand.