Missing links in the Broadcast Bill

BY Ammu Joseph| IN Law and Policy | 27/08/2007
There is still no sign that the Ministry recognises the need for an authentic public debate on media regulation, and the draft legislation in particular.

Ammu Joseph

Mr. Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, who is Minister for Parliamentary Affairs in addition to Information and Broadcasting, clearly has his hands full, with sticky issues such as the Indo-US nuclear deal and l¿affaire Quattrochi adding to the burden of the controversial Broadcast Bill and Content Code he unveiled a month ago.  This may be why the I&B Ministry¿s proposed meeting with "stakeholders" to discuss the latter was postponed by a week.  It remains to be seen whether or not the subsequent furore in Parliament over Ambassador Ronen Sen¿s "headless chickens" remarks will lead to a further delay.  

Meanwhile, in the face of vehement opposition to the draft legislation from the media industry, especially news broadcasters, the Ministry is said to be "ready for a complete rethink on the most irritating issues in the Bill and the Code, provided the news channels come into a communication and dialogue mode." The government is apparently considering setting up a drafting committee, including members of the media, to go through the clauses of the Bill and weed out the most "hurting provisions."

An anonymous but senior official quoted in a recent report suggested that "the ambiance should be that of dialogue."  That certainly makes sense.  But it was clearly up to the Ministry to lead by example by creating the necessary environment for a sensible exchange of information and ideas.  The lack of transparency and the apparent haste that has marked the process so far has hardly been conducive to meaningful and constructive discussion. 

It is also worth noting that there is still no sign that the Ministry recognises, let alone accepts, the need for an authentic public debate on media regulation in general and the draft legislation in particular.

Pursuing its current course the Ministry may well get some media representatives to join committees, object to one thing, agree to another, drop this clause, add that amendment, and so on.  While some may be driven by self-interest, others will no doubt be motivated by more public-spirited considerations.  The question is whether tinkering with the present drafts will help produce the kind of media regulation that a 60-year-old democracy requires and deserves. 

Certainly such tweaking is unlikely to fix the fundamental flaws that afflict the draft legislation, which stem from the very process through which it has emerged.  First of all, in coming up with the Bill and Code the government skipped several essential steps in media regulation in a democracy.  Among the most important of these is the creation of an independent, autonomous regulatory body. 

In its 1995 judgment relating to the broadcast media the Supreme Court had not only specified that the use of airwaves was to be controlled and regulated by a public authority in the interests of the public, but it had also instructed the central government to take steps to establish such an authority -- representative of all classes and interests in society -- to perform this function. 

Twelve years later the new Bill does not respect the Court¿s opinion or follow its directions in this matter.  Not only is the document peppered with references to the central government, but several provisions within it convey the distinct impression that the legislation is essentially meant to enable the government to regain control over the broadcast sector -- control that had been eroded over the past decade-and-a-half by the emergence of private broadcasters, both indigenous and international, on the media landscape.

The Broadcasting Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), as described in the Bill, cannot be seen as an independent and autonomous public authority, considering the overarching influence of the government over every aspect of it, from its constitution and composition to its powers and functions.  Similar weaknesses afflict the Public Service Broadcasting Council (PSBC) as envisaged in the draft Bill. 

Another problem is that the draft Bill does not make any provision for public involvement in the regulatory framework.  This is, of course, in keeping with the absence of public consultation and debate that has characterised the process so far.  However, it is a serious omission that needs to be corrected if media legislation is to have any validity in a democracy.  Media regulators in several democratic countries across the world have established transparent procedures for public consultation on vital matters relating to media policy. 

That media regulation is a necessity is beyond question.  There is little doubt that issues of media ownership and content are legitimate concerns, contentious though they may be.  The question is how regulation is to be approached and implemented.  The need for media regulation cannot be used as a fig-leaf to mask the promotion of state control over media.  If the Ministry is really well-intentioned it must ensure that it is seen to be so. 

One way the government can, at least now, set the stage for media regulation in the public interest is by disseminating a consultation/white paper proposing a media regulation model for India, providing the rationale for it and seeking responses from the media as well as the public to specific questions on different aspects of regulation, ranging from structures to content.  This must, of course, be supplemented with information, including data on the present media scenario (both state and private), existing media-related legislation (including competition laws), and relevant regulatory structures and mechanisms currently in operation.  A backgrounder on different approaches to and experiences with media regulation in other democracies would also be useful. 

Together such documents would enable citizens - and, equally importantly, their elected representatives - to form and express informed opinions on the subject, not only through written submissions but possibly also at public hearings across the country (media regulators in several countries hold such hearings).  The actual drafting of legislation is - or should be -- the next step.

In view of the critical role of the media as the Fourth Estate in a democracy, media regulation must reflect the interests and concerns of all stakeholders, including the public.  It should not be presented to them as a fait accompli that can only be mildly fiddled with by a chosen few.

Contact:  ammujo2003@yahoo.co.in 

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