Hardly had the Information and Broadcasting ministry obtained the Law Ministry's clearance for a draft notification amending the cable television network rules 1994 that the news broadcasters created a hue and cry in their own media as well as in political circles on being gagged or throttled that the PM had to intervene and assure that changes in the Cable TV Rules and the Cable Television (Regulations) Act 1995 would be taken up only after ‘widest possible consultation’ with all stake-holders. This is not the first time that the PM had to intervene in a matter concerning regulations for the broadcasters. In August 2007 also the PMO had intervened to slow down the Draft Broadcast Bill until all stakeholders agreed on the need for any further regulations on TV and Radio.
It is so evident how weak is our regulatory system that in the last 14 years, inspite of having numerous deliberations on the broadcast content regulations our government has not decided whether we need any regulations or not. They also do not know if at all there should be any regulations, what should contain in them. On the other hand we should conclude that our political system is so weak that any strong industry lobby can pressurize it to do as they want. It is not the question of a particular political party bending under pressure, we have had different parties handling this subject in the similar way in the past when they were in power. This time the general elections are coming close, so it is obvious that the government will play safe and avoid coming in the bad books of the strong News Media Lobby.
Our government always responds in crises but the response never materializes in to action. In 1994, when the Ministry of Industries recognized the cable television industry, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was caught unawares. It was so much under the spell of the film industry that it never thought any thing about the mushrooming cable TV networks. Because of the recognition as a small scale industry, I&B had to act fast in making some kind of regulations. The 1994 Cable Ordinance was hurriedly drafted and cable operators were blamed for any thing going wrong with the industry, be it the content of satellite channels or the advertisements in the TV channels. Unfortunately, operators were not concerned any way with the production of both of these. This time the crises was created when the Government came under pressure from civil society and the Supreme Court to “address the growing menace of obtrusive content of TV channels”, in particular after the aberrations noted in the coverage of the recent Mumbai terror attacks by the news channels in which the location, strategy or other operational details of the security forces had seemingly been compromised. The proposed amendments to the Cable TV Rules, the ministry had opined, will “sufficiently empower” the Government to take immediate action against the erring TV channels for violations of the Code.
As a consequence a Cabinet Note dated 30 December seeking amendments to the Cable Television Network Rules of 1994 that aim to regulate television coverage during military and anti-terrorist operations and restrain channels from running recordings of narco analysis, lie-detector tests, judicial confessions, and graphic coverage of sexual crimes was dispatched for comments to the Home and Defence ministers following the approval of the Law Ministry. The I&B Ministry had especially criticized TV coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks, the Gurjjar agitation and the Amarnath protests, alleging that TV channels are in a race “to catch more eyeballs and thereby earn higher rating points”.
The Cabinet Note is acrimonious on the quality of TV coverage of the Mumbai attacks where it says “the entire electronic media was swamped by pictures of excessive violence.” even after the operation had ended. “It has been noticed that the news items telecast by some TV channels contained details, identity, number of hostages or information regarding number of security personnel involved or the methods employed by them in a hostage situation that may endanger the security personnel as well as the rescue operation.”
“Similarly, live contact including phone-in calls and interviews with victims or security personnel or other technical personnel involved or the perpetrators of crime while the violence or the criminal activities are in progress tend to escalate law and progress tend to escalate law and order problem and may (hinder) national security.”
“Attaching too much importance (to) the objectives of the perpetrators of crime on TV and thereby glamorizing them facilitate publicity of such militant outfits and their ideologies and tend to evoke sympathy. (This) needs to be curbed.”
“Most of the news and current affairs TV channels tend to put the caption ‘live’ even while replaying file shots and that create apprehension in the mind of the viewers especially during crisis situation. There have also been instances where due to indiscretion in reporting of ongoing criminal investigation, cases have been jeopardized.”
Do we need more reasons to decide whether there should be any regulations on the news channels for covering such emergencies? Although PM’s concern about misuse of such regulations by the district magistrates, police officials and SDMs by stopping transmission and confiscate equipment resulting in a clash between executive and media is understood but is it a reason enough to lay aside a law to protect national security and integrity?
It is also worth considering that while the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) that raised a hue and cry against the proposed amendments has only 30 news channels as members, there are more than 200 given permission to run news and current affairs channels. It is only these few big ones who have both political as well as financial backings that they can afford to lay roadblocks in whatever the government wishes to do that curtails their freedom and hurts their vested interests. In 2007 too, when the I&B Minister Sh Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi issued a draft self regulations regarding content treatment for news and current affairs channels, it were the same broadcasters who were yelling on top of their voice against the draft calling it with names like ‘draconian’, ‘throttling’ etc. This was after making a draft with the help of all stakeholders and discussing it with all of them for months together.
It is sad that these news broadcastrers are scurrying to the politicians to garner support for their wrong cause. Editors of all major news channels, ranging from NDTV, Star News, CNN IBN, IBN7, India TV, Zee News, Aaj Tak and News 24 among others, had met BJP president Rajnath Singh and CPI (M) general secretary Prakash Karat on 13 January to enlist their support against the government's alleged move to muzzle the press. They also met Congress president Sonia Gandhi and BJP's PM-in-waiting L K Advani.
In 2007 when the news broadcasters were resisting the draft regulations issued by the ministry, they promised to make their self regulatory guidelines at the earliest. However, these were submitted only after one year and even after making a complaint redressal committee headed by justice Verma their control on the channels was next to nothing because even after that there were so many advisories issued by the government to the news channels for violating the code.
Interestingly, the ministry’s listed amendments have lot of sense considering what all had happened during the Mumbai attack. The 19 new amendments in the Cable TV Networks Rules only addressed various community and security concerns, remove ambiguities and empower the Government to exercise better regulatory control. While the approval of a “delayed carriage of live feed” of war or anti-terror operations is to be left to the “discretion” of a notified authorized officer (district magistrate, sub-divisional magistrate or commissioner of police), permission for carrying any footage of a narco-analysis or polygraph test or judicial confession is proposed to be sought via a court order.
While a designed “authorized officer” (who will be notified in the official gazette) will clear all feeds of live war or terror operation coverage, live phone-in calls, operational details, “unnecessary repeat footage” and “unauthenticated information” related to investigations will not be permitted to be carried by cable services.
Some amendments aim at curbing TV channels showing explicit images of sexual violence against women and children, exposing the identity of such victims, showing emotional scenes of living victims and relatives of deceased victims and relatives of deceased victims of crime, war and disaster, depicting extended images of blood or gore, and showing material that glorifies superstition and occultism.
There is nothing very new in these regulations that we don’t find else where in other developed countries.
Indian media is too young to follow any self regulations. More over, mere 30 odd channels do not represent 250 registered news channels. There are so many new entrants that It is almost difficult to monitor and control what they should cover and how. Also it can be hard for TV journalists to judge what should and shouldn’t be covered live. So there must be some guidelines and restrictions in coverage of sensitive incidents keeping public and national interest in mind. This comes with experience and the judgment of senior editors but do all our news channels have such experienced persons? Most of the reporters in the field are freshers straight from the media schools and have nothing in mind except bringing a ‘breaking news’ for their channel to grab more eye balls.
So the best thing for the government is to go ahead with their guidelines which should act as a deterrent to the erring channels who do not keep country’s interest above their own..
The Never Ending Saga of Content Regulations
23rd August 1995 - Delhi HC directed the government to stop the telecast of TV programmes which were full of sex, violence and indecent exposure of women.
13th February 1997 - The then I&B Minister, Mr. CM Ibrahim assured that the Bill will be introduced in the Parliament in the Budget Session.
18th February 1997 - A Cabinet Subcommittee headed by the then Prime Minister Mr. HD Devegowda okayed the proposed bill with some modifications but his government fell.
16th May 1997 - I&B Minister, Jaipal Reddy tabled the Broadcasting Bill in the Lok Sabha for the first time.
2000 - Introduction of the Broadcasting Bill in the Budget session announced.
31st August 2001 - Convergence Bill introduced in the Parliament.
2003 - Broadcasters set up their own body called the Indian Broadcasting Standards Council (ISBC).
August 2003 - Inter-ministerial committee constituted to look into violations of the programme code by TV channels.
10th August 2004 - The IBF announced the setting up of a sub-committee to look into matters related to broadcasting.
18th March 2005 - Jaipal Reddy proposed to set up a Quasi-judicial regulatory authority to check the growing obscenity on private TV channels.
3rd October 2005 - Committee appointed to review Content Code. Since then I&B Ministry has held six meetings in three years for the same.
May 2006 - I&B Ministry announced Broadcast Bill to be tabled in the monsoon session.
May 2007 - The I&B Ministry issued a draft Self Regulation Guidelines for TV channels.
June 2007 - Ministry issued guidelines regarding content for news and current affairs channels.
August 2007 - Prime Minister's Office asks to go slow on Broadcast Bill until all stakeholders agree.
18th August 2007 - I&B Ministry calls for a meeting of stakeholders on 21st August to discuss the controversial bill.