Cocking a snook at the NBSA-self regulation is not working

BY GEETA SESHU| IN Law and Policy | 18/03/2018
One month after Zee News was ordered to apologise on air, pay a fine and remove a programme, nothing has happened. Channels continue flout norms, violate ethics and give partisan or fake news,
says GEETA SESHU in part I of a two-part article

 

Over the last couple of weeks, two disparate incidents brought to the fore the frightening state of self-regulation in Indian television. One, the revolting display of what can only be termed as ‘bathtub journalism’ by successive ‘national’ and regional television channels as they reduced the death of a film actor to a sorry spectacle. Second, the complete disdain with which Zee News has flouted the order of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) to apologise for its programme against poet-physicist Gauhar Raza.

On February 8, the NBSA ordered Zee to broadcast a message of regret in English and Hindi on February 16 at prime time at 9 p.m. As is customary, the NBSA directed the channel to broadcast the text on a full screen, in a large font size and with a clearly audible voiceover at slow speed. The NBSA, which has obviously thought of everything to ensure the channel does not take the easy way out, even provided the text:

Zee News regrets the taglines and views expressed during the broadcast of the programme/news report under the caption ‘Afzal Premi Gang ka Mushaira’ on 9.03.2016 to 12.03.2016, reporting on the poetry recited by Prof Gauhar Raza on 5.03.2016 at the annual Shankar Shad (Indo-Pak) mushaira at New Delhi. Zee News also regrets the description of Prof Gauhar Raza and the attendees/participants at the event as “Afzal Premi Gang’.

The television channel was also directed to pay a fine of one lakh (the maximum that the NBSA can levy on errant channels) to the News Broadcasters’ Association (NBA) with a week of receipt of the letter and remove the video of the programme if it was still on its website.  

The offending programme is still on the website and on Zee’s youtube channel, both part one and two. No apology has been forthcoming and no sign of the fine being paid.

For the NBSA, Zee’s recalcitrance is a setback. Its initial order was delivered in September last year but Zee decided to appeal. Zee contended that its programme was meant to show that freedom of expression was alive in India! But clearly, its programme did anything but that, as its tag lines said ‘Meet the poets who support traitors of the nation’ and recordings of Raza reciting poetry were interspersed with videos and audios of sloganeering in JNU, allegedly raised in the February 2016 meeting.

The NBSA, which heard the complaint by Raza as well as by Ashok Vajpeyi, Shubha Mudgal, Sharmila Tagore and Dr. Syeda Hameed, rejected Zee’s contention.

 

Shaky origins of self-regulation

The crisis over self-regulation in television is an old bugbear. The Press Council of India has mooted the idea of a Media Council; a Common Cause petition of 2013 sought directives from the Supreme Court over regulation of the broadcast media; and successive governments, through various bills, have tried to push the idea of a super regulator. In the wake of the November 26 attacks on Mumbai and government attempts to regulate the electronic media, the NBA, a private body registered under the Companies Act, launched the NBSA on October 2, 2008 with self-regulation as part of its objectives.

For the NBSA, this is not the first time a broadcaster-member has flouted its directive. The NBSA’s very beginnings were shaky with the walkout of the chairman and editor-in-chief of India TV Rajat Sharma, soon after the NBSA (or the News Broadcasters Standards (Dispute Redressal) Authority as it was then known) came into existence on October 2, 2008.

India TV was fined one lakh for erroneous reportage as it had dubbed an interview given by US-based writer and policy analyst Farhana Ali to Reuters news agency in Hindi and aired it, giving the impression the interview was conducted by India TV. India TV alleged that its reply saying that it had issued an apology to the complainant was not taken cognizance of.

India TV was ‘persuaded’ to return three months later and even given a place on the board of the association. There’s no information forthcoming as to whether it paid up but its head, Sharma, served as treasurer in 2013-14 and became president of the NBA in 2014.

In another, less publicized but equally damaging case, the NBSA took action after receiving numerous complaints about the controversial reportage of TV9 called  ‘Gay culture rampant in Hyderabad’, aired on February 22, 2011.

The NBSA held that the broadcaster had violated Clauses 5 (sex and nudity), Clause 6 (privacy) and Clause 9 (sting operations) of the Code of Ethics which is  binding on NBA members. The NBSA censured the channel, directed that an apology be aired and imposed a one lakh fine.  

Subsequently, the channel’s broadcaster, the Associated Broadcasting Co Pvt Ltd, exited the NBA and it is anybody’s guess whether it aired the apology or paid the fine.

A complaint filed by four students of the Nalsar University of Law, Hyderabad, against Sakshi TV is a good illustration of the limitations of self-regulation. In April 2013, the students noticed an unidentified person recording their departure from a pub after a private party. An altercation followed and the police arrived on the scene. Throughout, the exchange was recorded on video.

Later, this was aired on various television channels, including ABN Andhra Jyothi, TV 9, CVR News, Studio N, N TV, TV 5, News 24 and Sakshi TV, as an example of the drunken and irresponsible behaviour of law students at the university.

Of all the channels that aired the footage, only Sakshi TV is a member of the NBA while both TV5 and TV9 (channels of Shreya Broadcasting Pvt Ltd and Associated Broadcasting Company Pvt. Ltd respectively, had ceased to be  members of the NBA). The students, in their complaint to the NBSA, said: ‘The reportage was erroneous and defamatory comments were made by referring to them as “drunk”, “half naked” and “nude” and further obfuscated the facts by employing editing tactics such as blurring out portions of one of their member’s dress to make it appear that they were dressed in an indecent manner.’

The NBSA order said that the footage violated norms and that ‘the broadcast intruded into the privacy of the students; there was no objectivity, impartiality or neutrality in reporting the incident; there was no verification of facts; and that it caused unwarranted distress to the students’. It imposed a fine of one lakh on Sakshi TV and directed it to air an apology expressing regret for the broadcast.

 

NBSA fails to curb the worst excesses

But how effective is such regulation? Did the action deter Sakshi TV from such reportage in the future? In any case, no action could be taken against the other channels in the law students’ case as they didn’t fall within the purview of the NBA.

In the best-case scenario, the NBSA’s effectiveness would have helped to rein in errant television channels and penalize them for their excesses. But its work for self-regulation has suffered on two counts.

One, its authority does not extend to a majority of the 389 private news television channels (permitted satellite channels as on 31.12.2017) in India. It can only adjudicate complaints against the top 24 broadcasters and their 64 channels that are members of its parent body, the News Broadcasters Association.

While that somewhat explains how a channel like Mahaa TV can get away with the shocking absurdity of putting a reporter into a bathtub while trying to recreate the tragic death of actor Sridevi, it also exposes the completely lawless manner in which news television operates in India. And that’s the second count.

Across the board, whether they are members of the NBA or not, news television channels have flouted all norms, violated ethics and privacy rights, been blatantly partisan as they have indulged in fake news and doctored news to suit their agendas, besides reducing tragedy to the bathos of spectacle and triviality as they race to the bottom to secure TRPs and assert their stamp over reality.

Zee News is already in the dock for a host of such transgressions. There was the privacy violation in its self-righteous mock panchayat conducted in the Gudiya case of 2004 (well before any kind of self-regulation was even talked about). More recently, there was the arrest of senior editors for allegedly demanding Rs 100 crore from Jindal Power and Steel Ltd in 2012.

And more recent still, its coverage of JNU students and its role in the lodging of the FIR against the students in 2016, not to mention its claim that the new currency notes issued after demonetization in 2016 contained GPS chips.   

While the NBSA was pretty much missing in action throughout the JNU issue, will it manage to get Zee to conform to its directives this time? Will self-regulation work?

 

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