Free speech Tracker|
|Broadcasters protest new TV policy guidelines|
Govt bid to gag TV outrages broadcasters, libertarians
The government's decision to recast policy guidelines for TV channels, which in effect has held out the threat of canceling the licence of news channels if they are guilty of five "violations", has created an outrage among broadcasters and civil rights activists who have described it as a knee jerk reaction and demanded an immediate withdrawal of the order.
Broadcasters feel that blocking a news channel can't depend on executive decisions which are often prone to whims and fancies of the powers that be. Instead, if a channel is at all to be blocked, there must be due process of law that must be upheld by the courts. Otherwise, the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press would be in jeopardy.
Broadcast Editors' Association president Shazi Zaman said, "The new norms of renewal of news channel license are shocking. The government has subverted self regulation by putting the five-violation clause for renewal. This clause has a dangerous potential for arbitrary use. This move is a direct attack by government on freedom of speech and should be reversed immediately."
The decision, cleared by the Cabinet on Friday, says that renewal of a channel's license will be subject to it having five or less violations. These `violations' of the program and advertisement code are part of the uplinking and downlinking guidelines and have to be adhered to by all channels.
However, it's a government committee that is empowered to determine whether a channel has violated these conditions which cover a vast range - from programming that is deemed vulgar, obscene, anti-national or hurtful of any community. Several of these are open to subjective interpretation. Therefore, the decision must be subject to the court's scrutiny and sanction, say broadcasters.
NDTV's senior managing editor Sonia Varma said she was studying the guidelines more closely but her initial reaction to the government move was "unflattering". "We don't believe that the government should dictate guidelines to broadcasters. We have an independent regulatory mechanism under Justice J S Verma and would prefer that this is done through an independent mechanism."
Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) head and media watcher Akhila Sivadas said that it was a disturbing sign that the government chose to behave like a "Big Brother", swinging from knee-jerk responses to a hands-off approach. "There is need for a transparent consultation process rather than this inconsistent and incoherent policy by the government," she said stressing the need for "participatory regulation".
She added that the media industry was responsible for creating awareness about viewer rights. Supreme Court lawyer and Team Anna member Prashant Bhushan who has advocated strong media council at various occasions said "it was absolutely wrong" for government to make rules that entail shutting down of a channel at the behest of a government committee.
"There needs to be external regulation rather than government control. There is a need for a strong media regulatory body that is independent of the government and the industry," he said.
Media watcher Sevanti Ninan said that the five-violation guideline appeared arbitrary and was not a substitute for a properly constituted regulatory mechanism. She said, "Today it is arbitrary, the ministry simply shuts down a channel for a while. Guidelines are not a substitute for a properly constituted regulatory mechanism with detailed guidelines for deciding what is a violation. If the definition of violations is left to somebody's discretion, it endangers free speech."
Ninan added, "I think the government should look at the growing problem of political ownership of media. As the Chief Election Commission said recently, at election time this gives some contestants an unfair advantage."
Times Global Broadcasting Ltd MD and CEO Sunil Lulla said that the new rules were "shocking". "We already have a regulatory mechanism in place with guidelines that have been put in place in consultation with the I&B ministry," he said, adding that the new norms were never discussed.
The BEA said that across all democratic nations, governments have no role in issues pertaining to content. In a statement the broadcasters' body said, "With the new norms, government is trying to control an otherwise independent electronic media by sending a subtle message that their permission to uplink can be withdrawn should they not 'behave'."
"Can content be left to the wisdom of the bureaucrats in a democracy," the BEA asked. The association said that the result of the new norms would be that an officer of the government can question an individual channel on content for four times on one pretext or the other, and finally, threaten that channel of non-renewal, should it not fall in line. It said the move was an attempt to undermine the steps taken towards self-regulation.