4 min read.Updated: 11 Nov 2020, 11:20 AM ISTLata Jha
The government issued a gazette order to this effect on Wednesday after the ministry of information and broadcasting expressed disagreement with the industry body's proposed self-regulation plan
The the Internet and Mobile Association of India had proposed the self-regulation code earlier this month
NEW DELHI: With a gazette notification signed by the President, the central government has brought digital audio-visual content, including films and web shows on over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms, as well as news and current affairs on online platforms under the ambit of the ministry of information and broadcasting, in a move that media experts say could have far reaching effects on creative expression in India.
Up until earlier this year, senior government officials had emphasized on the need for a light-touch regulatory approach for video streaming platforms. At an event last November, I&B secretary Amit Khare had said they’re looking at a system of self-regulation for the OTT industry.
On the notification, an I&B spokesperson said the move, a long time coming, was aimed at creating a ‘level playing field’ since all other media are regulated.
Television follows the programming and advertising code prescribed under the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994. Films are governed by the Cinematograph Act, 1952.
"Today print media, news, GECs (general entertainment channels) and theatrical films are all governed and regulated in some way. There was a gap, where online news and content were not yet regulated. Several cases have been filed before various courts in the last few years, seeking regulation of the same and this (kind of regulation) was coming," Chandrima Mitra, partner at DSK Legal said. Mitra pointed out that the notification comes on the back of the Supreme Court seeking the Centre’s response on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) for regulating OTT platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video this October. Further, recent controversies such as the Sudarshan TV case had already brought to the fore the need to check web-based digital media.
After several hints from the government, 15 OTT platforms including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, ALTBalaji, ZEE5, Arre, Discovery+, Eros Now, Flickstree, Hoichoi, Hungama, MX Player, Shemaroo, VOOT and Jio Cinema had come together under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) in September to sign a code of self-regulation, formulating a framework for age classification, appropriate content description and access control. MIB, however, rejected the code and asked IAMAI to look at other mechanisms which allow for an independent monitoring organisation like the Digital Curated Content Complaints Council (DCCCC) along with enumeration of prohibited content.
To be sure, India is not the first or only country to regulate digital media. All electronic communication in the US is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency of the government that regulates communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. The US has sophisticated regulations for the Internet. In general, the US, in line with the free speech principle expressed in the First Amendment has minimal content regulation.
China, Singapore and South Korea, meanwhile, have Internet-specific censorship laws.
Media and entertainment industry experts, however, say the new notification is a clear case of regulating a segment that refuses to toe the line. A senior journalist also pointed out on condition of anonymity that it will be challenging to implement these regulations given that the entry barriers for digital platforms are extremely low since they don’t require the kind of (uplinking or downlinking) licenses that broadcast networks do, or to check entities not registered in India. “Unless, like China, they want to openly censor all kinds of content," the person said.
“Censorship and controls smack of colonial elitism where the ruling power doesn’t trust the public because they know what is good for us and we don’t," journalist Madhu Trehan, also co-founder of digital news portal Newslaundry said.
While recent OTT offerings like Mirzapur, Sacred Games and others had drawn some flak for explicit content, creators say the distinct charm of web titles lies in their ability to be real, rustic and unapologetic. India’s theatrical business has long bowed down to diktats of the censor board, while the Indian Broadcasting Foundation and the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council have regulated TV content.
“This move is not about violence, language, or nudity, they will pass those and look progressive. OTTs were already self-censoring on this front post shows like Leila that got tremendous backlash from the right wing. It is about any content that counters government ideology or policy. So, while it will look like nothing's really changed, it will severely affect any discourse that could have been started via films or shows about the state of the nation or people," said a filmmaker working on a slate of web shows, who did not wish to be named.
"We look forward to working with the ministry to implement our industry's self-regulation efforts. As responsible content creators, we want to ensure this act not only takes cognizance of the nature of content being released, but also ensures that we safeguard creativity in this rapidly growing sector," Karan Bedi, CEO, MX Player, said.
Last year, the government had capped foreign direct investment (FDI) in digital media at 26%. Last month, in a clarification it added that majority of directors on the board of a digital news platform and its chief executive officer should be Indian citizens. Also, foreigners deployed by them for over 60 days need security clearance.