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Introduction:

The Indian mass media, which is considered an
independent watchdog, has witnessed a rapid growth in the last two decades,
especially the broadcast media. The broadcast news media industry continues to
multiply even as the Information and Broadcasting ministry (I&B), which is
responsible to administer the public and private TV channels, is approving
licenses for more number of news channels. This overflowing situation of the
news broadcasting industry is posing various challenges not only for the
industry itself but also for the government due to the absence of a statutory
regulation for the broadcast media. 

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This scenario also poses a bigger question for the
government following the presence of a statutory body for the print media in
the country.

The Press Council of India (PCI), which looks after the
cases related to the print is headed by the chairman who is a retired judge of
the Supreme Court of India. It is a statutory, quasi-judicial institution that
works under the aegis of the Press Council Act of 1978 (Iqbal VT, 2014)

But for television news media there until today there
has been no consensus on an appropriate broadcasting policy between the
government and the industry itself. The television news media has often been
criticized for “misrepresentation of events” not only by the government but by
the public too, which has often led to a debate whether there should be a
statutory control over the broadcast media in the country.

Though there have been various laws that were launched
by the government periodically in the form of Cable Television Networks
(Regulation) Act or the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)
Act, which notifies guidelines for the broadcasting industry, they have not
been able to manage the broadcast media sufficiently due to the lack of a
uniform philosophy.     

The broadcast media in India is subjected to a
“self-regulatory” mechanism which has been considered weak and ineffective due
to its inadequate rules imposed on the media houses.

 “Backdoor” and
“Front-door” control over broadcast media

Till 1992, the broadcast media industry in India had
only two government-controlled channels-DD1 And DD2, where news was produced
and broadcasted exclusively by Doordarshan (DD)- country’s only state-funded
and state-controlled public broadcaster established under the Prasar Bharati
Act. With the emergence of satellite televisions, the private television
channels and 24 X 7 news channels also flourished.

Witnessing the broadcast media industry becoming an
independent medium, the Indian government tried to being media under its
umbrella by passing the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act in 1995
which regulated the content and operation of growing cable networks in the
country. The “Programme” and “Advertising” codes under clause 5 and 6 respectively,
which are a part of the Cable Television Network Rules imposes restrictions on
the type of content broadcasted in any programme and advertisement on cable
TV. 

However, since the act only controlled the cable
operators, the broadcast media remained beyond the act’s purview without
putting much impact on controlling the content of television channels (Dayal,
2013)

While the Cable Television Networks Act was already in
place including the Advertising and Programme codes, the I&B ministry made
another effort to regulate the rapidly growing broadcast sector. Proposing to
establish an autonomous broadcasting authority to facilitate and regulate the
broadcasting services, the ministry introduced the Broadcasting Bill in 1998,
which went in a backburner.

Continuing its effort to pass the broadcasting bill,
the government again introduced the “Broadcasting Bill” in 2006 but was
criticised by the media industry for tackling the “concentration of media
ownership”. In a third attempt, former Union I&B minister Priya Ranjan
Dasmunsi drafted the bill in the form of “Broadcasting Services Regulation
Bill”, 2008: to regulate the broadcasting services including several private TV
channels. The draft bill, which allows the government to establish an
independent Broadcasting Authority of India (BRAI) and look after four major
areas including subscriptions, content, live sports feed and cross-media
ownership, has till today not seen the light of the day.

In order to have an additional mechanism to monitor the
content of TV channels, the I& B ministry had set up the Electronic Media
Monitoring Committee (EMMC) in 2008. But the EMMC which only reports the
violation of programme and advertising codes under the Cable Television
Networks Act has not been vested with powers to “regulate” the content
following which even this committee has rarely been able to bring the
television news media under its ambit. 

Witnessing the government’s continuous attempt to
regulate the broadcast media, the television industry undertook the step to
self-regulate themselves, though in consultation with the Information and
Broadcasting ministry. 

As a “Front-door” approach, the television news media
associated itself with a self-regulatory mechanism–News Broadcasters Standards
Authority (NBSA) under the News Broadcasters Association formed in 2008. The
NBA, headed by one former chief justice of India, four editors from different
news channels and four experts from various fields, was set up to deal with
regulatory issues affecting news and current affairs. It further formed the
independent body NBSA to govern the code of ethics of broadcasting as laid down
by the NBA.

Similarly, the non-news channels including general
entertainment channels are being governed by the Broadcasting Content Complaint
Council (BCCC) set up by the Indian Broadcasting Foundation in 2011.

 

Question mark on NBA

Over the years, the NBA has been criticized for acting
like a “toothless” body following the lack of acceptance from the news industry
itself. Even though the news broadcast industry comprises of over 400 news
channels but as of today, only 65 news channels are active members of the
independent self-regulatory body, of which few are owned by the same media
conglomerate. The other media channels have either refused to subscribe to it
or have simply moved out of the body following which the critics (Rajkhowa,
2015) argue that the weak regulatory standards with no involvement in
monitoring, pre-censoring or pre-clearing the programmes have made it
ineffective.

The rules binding on the members have been considered
mild as no strict actions have been taken so far against any media house. One
of the instances wherein 2012, Jindal Steel and Power Ltd. Chairman Naveen
Jindal accused Zee news editor Sudheer Chaudhary and Zee News business editor
Samir Ahluwalia of extorting 100 crores from him in order to stop coverage on
coal block allocations to the company, the NBSA did consider the complaint but
did not take any punitive action against the channel.

The maximum penalty imposed by the association on any
television news channel broadcasting any objectionable content is one lakh
rupees. In this situation, the NBSA provided the channel with warnings not to
repeat the programme, which proves how laid-back it has been in adhering to its
own rules.

Despite the NBSA having the rule to ban a channel, the
I ministry only continues to fit under the aegis of media regulation by
taking action against any news channel when required to act as a “back-door”
control for the broadcast media.

Media is known to be the fourth pillar of democracy but
over the years the broadcasting media in India has grown into a “business”
industry. Today, every news channel is competing with each other to stay ahead
in the race of gaining popularity and moves away with the aim of disseminating
the actual news to the public and serving its own business interest (Mathew,
2016).

One instance wherein 2013 tapes of recorded
conversations between corporate lobbyist Niira Radia and Tata Group and
Reliance Industries along with other politicians and senior journalists were
leaked to the public, pointed towards the vulnerable situation of media under
the self-regulatory mechanism. Without cross-media restrictions by the
government, particularly concerning the TV medium, a variety of news streams
could be adversely influenced adding to the continuous privatization and
commodification of news instead of serving public interests. As stated by
Sengupta (2013), “the subsequent failure of the NBA to transform itself into an
effective self-regulator, commanding compliance from their members, has meant
that even though self-regulation is attractive in principle, it has proved
unworkable in practice.”

 

“Need for regulation”: Cases

In the last one decade, there have been instances where
the broadcast media garnered negative criticism on a larger scale. One of the
“infamous” cases that revived the debate of broadcast media regulation in India
was a fake sting operation conducted by a TV news channel against a government
school teacher.

A private Hindi news channel in 2007 telecasted a sting
operation in a programme in which it accused a public-school teacher, Uma
Khurana, of pushing her girl student into flesh trade. While it claimed to have
a “fearless” reporter carrying out the “expose” of a sex racket, the story led
to a huge public outrage and Uma Khurana was attacked by the furious parents of
students. The negative publicity of the issue against the teacher forced the
Directorate of Education, Government of India firing Khurana from her job
within 24 hours without initiating any probe in the matter and led to her
arrest, following which she was charged under the Immoral Trafficking
(Prevention) Act.

It was only after the police scanned the unedited
footage of the sting operation, the show proved to be fake and found a
businessman behind the misconduct, who framed Khurana, whom, he claimed of
owning him money. Following his arrest, the reporter of the channel who aired
the fake sting operation was also arrested after it was found that the “victim”
making allegations against the teacher in the video was not a student but a
budding journalist.

While they all were arrested on the charges of fake
evidence, cheating and impersonation, the Delhi high court gave a clean chit to
Khurana after the police charge-sheet did not find any evidence against her.
Soon after the incident, the I ministry imposed a ban on the TV news
channel for a month.

However, a defamation case was filed against the
channel which was later withdrawn by Khurana, who claimed to have settled the
matter with the channel.

But this episode did question the credibility of the
media fraternity and the industry. While calling for a strict framework of
self-regulatory guidelines, there was a concern among the government to bring a
better form of media regulation. 

Live coverage of 2008 Mumbai Attacks

The formation of the self-regulatory body by the NBA
lies in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks where the media was heavily criticized
for its “uncontrolled” and “unrestrained” live coverage of the incident.

On 26 November 2008, millions of television screens
across India saw the first ever 67-hours long live coverage of a terrorist
outrage, where scores of people were killed by ten young group of terrorists
from Pakistan. Various news channels showed “exclusive” pictures of two of the
terrorists named Ismail and Ajmal Kasab, who was later captured live walking
around the city’s largest train station with a gun in his hand (Sanger, 2008).

The series of the 12 shooting and bombing attacks on at
various public places turned into the biggest nightmare for the city as the
terror strikes left 171 dead and over 250 injured.

The government expressed resentment against the 24-hour
television news channels for such massive reporting, where they ran live
visuals of dead bodies and gunmen spraying bullets into the crowds. One of the
news channels also aired a “phone-in” with one of the terrorists.

While condemning the irresponsible reportage, the
critics described it as “TV terror” for broadcasting violent scenes
and sending across panic waves. The journalists were criticised (Pepper, 2008)
for being overly dramatic and sensationalizing the incident by reporting live
“exclusives” without confirming the factual information.

The Supreme Court of India also questioned the role of
the broadcast news media even as it denounced the 24-hour news channels for
allowing the allies of the terrorist group across the border to get minute by
minute updates of the operations carried out by the security forces during the
attacks and help them stay one step ahead and improvise their activities.

The Constitution of India guarantees the right to
freedom of speech and expression under the Right to Freedom of Article 19. Even
though Article 19 (1) (a) does not specifically mention about the freedom of
the press, the fundamental right of the freedom of the press is implied within
the right to freedom of speech and expression. However, in the episode of
26/11, the court found the media’s role completely unacceptable as it not only
affected the public consciousness but also threatened their own existence.

A Hindu report (29 August 2012, “Live TV coverage put
national security in jeopardy, says Bench”) quoted the Supreme Court’s bench
statement:

“Any attempt to justify the conduct of the TV channels
by citing the right to freedom of speech and expression would be totally wrong
and unacceptable in such a situation. Freedom of expression, like all other
freedoms under Article 19, is subject to reasonable restrictions. An action
tending to violate another person’s right to life guaranteed under Article 21
or putting the national security in jeopardy can never be justified by taking
the plea of freedom of speech and expression.”

The Indian broadcasting media’s callous reporting
forced the I&B ministry to amend the Cable Television Networks (Amendment)
Act in 2015. A new clause was added to the programme code which would bar the
news channels to broadcast live coverage of any anti-terrorist operations by
security forces. The new rule directed that no programme should be carried on
any cable networks that “contains live coverage of anti-terrorist
operation by security forces, wherein media coverage shall be restricted to
periodic briefing by any officer designated by the appropriate government, till
such operation concludes” (Dhawan, 2017)

2016 Pathankot Attack

It was for the first time in India that the Union
government had banned a private Hindi TV news channel for a day following its
vast coverage of the “Pathankot” attacks in January 2016.

NDTV Hindi was blacked out for 24 hours on orders from
the I&B ministry for allegedly revealing “strategically sensitive”
information during the militant attacks on Pathankot airbase in Punjab
(Daniyal, 2016)

The notice was served to the channel under the newly
amended norms of Cable Television Networks (Amendment) Act.

While the government termed the blackout as a reason of
national security, (Daniyal, 2016) the day-long blackout irked various media
circles including the Editors’ Guild of India, calling it a harsh censorship
imposed by the government reminiscent of the Emergency in 1975. Even NDTV India
claimed the order to be a direct attack on media freedom and expressed shock at
being singled out by the government even when all the other channels had a
similar coverage.

The NDTV India ban proposed the fact that the broadcast
media needed a watchdog to preserve its freedom besides giving out a message to
the other news channels.

The concept of self-regulatory mechanism

Over the years, the failure of the self-regulation
mechanism in India has often been compared to several other countries including
the United Kingdom where there is a combination of both government regulation
and self-regulation. The UK press (Ravikumar, 2014) has been governed by
self-regulation from the last 5 decades under Press Complaints Committee. While
the PCCC has been successfully dealing with complaints against any article in
any publication or any misconduct by any journalists, the newspapers and
magazines also adhere to all its rules and regulations making it an effective
self-regulated industry.

Unlike the press, the UK broadcasting media is governed
through a statutory regulation by the Independent Television Commission (ITC),
as provided under the Broadcasting Act 1990. As per the guidelines (Iqbal,
2014) if any matters including obscenity, aggression and bogus claims are
broadcasted which causes panic among public then necessary actions would be
taken against the channels besides canceling their licenses. Thus, the critics
(Pandey, 2014) argue that Indian media would find it difficult to improve their
standards through the self-regulatory system alone.

However, witnessing the successful UK government’s
regulatory mechanism to regulate its communications sector including
broadcasting, telecom, and postal industries through OfCom, the former Union
I&B minister Pramod Mahajan also tried to implement a similar mechanism in
India.

In 2002, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)
was established as a regulator for both the telecom and broadcasting sector,
which issues rules on matters like streamlining of distribution of channels to
cable operators. Even though the TRAI was not a legal authority for
broadcasting media set up under the Cable Television Networks Act, it suggested
restrictions on cross-media ownership as the broadcast media had grown into a
separate sector.

TRAI raised its concern in favor of an independent
media regulator to check issues including paid news, but nothing has been
achieved so far.

Industry opposition to statutory control

The debate of self-regulation and statutory regulation
of media is a never-ending topic in India. In 2012, MP Meenakshi Natarajan
tried to present a “Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill,
2012” which would have given power to the government over the media to ban or
suspend the coverage of any event that would harm the national security. The
bill, however, (Ravikumar, 2014) excludes the regulatory authority out of the
Right to Information (RTI) Act, which means that it would give the body
complete control to administer media activities without itself being answerable
to any other authority. But following the media’s huge outcry, who called it a
“gag” on the media, the bill was also shelved.

Similarly, the Union government’s recent decision under
the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to set up a government regulatory
body for regulating the “inappropriate content” showing criticism against any
friendly countries, attacks on religious sentiments, incites violence,
encourages superstition or denigrates women through broadcasting and radio
channels, has irked the media groups who termed it as “media gagging”. Many
believe that regulating the media is not only an attack on their freedom but
also restricting the media power.

The broadcasters and journalists argue that if the
content regulation is left completely to the industry then they can determine
better when the rules should be changed in order to have better compliance.

As stated by Ravikumar (2014), media experts believe
that self-regulation is the best form to regulate the media if it has to serve
its role as a platform to exchange of ideas besides acting as the “watchdog” on
government. They argue that restrictions over ownership and control would
result in devious and dubious forms of “censorship” which happened during the 1975-77
emergency period (Thakurta, 2012)

Conclusion

The self-regulatory mechanism can prove to be effective
if there is a willingness to follow the system from the industry itself where
it assures to abide by norms in a fair way. While it is necessary to understand
the freedom of speech and expression, it is also important to know the meaning
of free flow of accurate information. This is only possible if the
self-regulatory mechanism includes the role of civil society people in the
media monitoring and bring more transparency. An open consultation between the
government, media owners, editors and journalists (Ravikumar, 2014) can ensure
better accountability of the media. The need of the hour is to strengthen the
existing mechanism with strict guidelines which acts as a lesson for all media
industry.

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