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On June 17, 2021, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB)has, in a major policy milestone, amended the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994. The new amendment offers a statutory mechanism for redressal of complaints relating to content broadcast by television channels. Self-regulatory bodies of broadcasters will now be formally recognised as regulators of digital media content on registering with the central government.

This was significant as it paved the way for a formal institutional system for addressing grievances while placing accountability on broadcasters and their self-regulating bodies. For the first time, there will now be statutory recognition of non-government authorities vested with content regulation. Since setting up their regulatory authorities over a decade ago, the broadcasters have been consistently demanding such recognition. The government seems to have fulfilled their wish and demand.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcast (MIB) has notified a statutory mechanism for complaint redressal both for the content on traditional broadcasting mediums like TV as also for internet streamed content, commonly referred to as OTT.  It has also recognised and notified Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) as the first statutory self-regulatory body.

3 Tier Redressal

The notified complaint redressal mechanism, simply put, is structured in three tiers. The first tier comprises of the content broadcasters namely the channels (the platforms in case of OTT content), the second tier of the industry regulators like BCCC; and the last tier rests with the government in MIB, who retains the authority to intervene if the first two tiers fail to satisfy the complainant. Administratively, MIB becomes the nodal ministry that will take care of the content complaints even with regard to the content on OTT platforms, though purely internet-related issues shall continue to be addressed by the Ministry of IT.

A sticky issue arising out of the recent notification on a three-tier system of complaint redressal is that the government will retain the position of the final arbiter in such disputes. The last appeal against the industry regulator still will lie with the government. Most broadcasters may not find that an insurmountable impediment but some, particularly the news broadcasters may take umbrage to government bureaucrats sitting in judgment on decisions taken by bodies (like BCCC) headed by eminent retired Supreme Court Judges or retired Chief Justices of High Courts. This opposition indeed does not carry much conviction for the simple reason that addressing a content complaint is not a process of technical adjudication nor does it involve complex interpretation of the law. The basic task is to ensure that the elaborately laid guidelines are followed in letter and spirit and in consonance with the reasonable understanding of the decency and propriety of an average viewer. And when it comes to being endowed with sound common sense, it may not be fair to argue that judges command a privileged position. In fact, sound application of common sense can be uniformly obtained by judges, men of media, civil servants, politicians alike. Therefore, this reservation seems more a reactive resentment than meritorious reasoning.

Beyond Babudom

Notwithstanding this reservation, MIB may be well advised to constitute the third tier in a manner that its constitution conveys credibility and fairness. There are many ways in which this can be achieved. Restricting the scope of the last appeal is another prudent option applying filters that permit instances of really substantial nature to come before it. Lastly, seeking constitutional remedy before the Apex Court safeguarding freedom of expression is always available to complainants or channels.  The one thing, however, the MIB must scrupulously shun is to make it a body comprising of only bureaucrats.

By any account, the government has acted decisively on a long-standing and thorny issue and deserve credit and compliments. The notified arrangement is by far the least problematic and if appreciated within the overall context of how issues related to the treatment of media tend to get sensationalised and explode disproportionately, may turn out to be a revolutionary initiative.

Self-Regulation principles

There are three basic principles that should guide any initiative on the self-regulation of content. Following these is essential if the government and every other stakeholder that significantly must include common citizens’ wishes these amendments to be effective in letter and spirit. The foremost principle is to have a pragmatic balance between creative freedom and a reasonable standard of commonly accepted decency and sensitivity in content. The second principle is that self-regulation inevitably shall become an outcome of compromise and will invariably be less than perfect. In all likelihood, the mechanisms of such regulation are bound to evolve and improve over time. The third principle will be to give due (neither excessive nor unreasonable) importance to business interests and create a mechanism that will not stifle the growth of the sector. The industry cannot and will not forgo its bread and butter and stand united in opposition to any moves that may appear or suggest to impede or slow down a reasonable prospect of growth, notwithstanding the might of the state and its associated power and authority.

Political Contingencies,Exigencies and Conviction

The Indian Broadcasting and Digital Foundation (IBDF), the successor of the Indian Broadcasting Federation(IBF) now expanded to include online digital platforms, and the key institution now recognised to monitor digital content, must also adequately comprehend the compulsions of the state. It will be short-sighted and counter-productive to lose sight of this fundamental reality. Governments take decisions based on political contingencies and exigencies and in some cases, political conviction. It is a myth that only the merits of an issue assume primacy in decision-making. If IBDF fails to accept and internalise this basic requirement, any initiative will be a non-starter and fail to get traction. The leadership of IBDF must guard against this weakness of only focusing on their interests and miss the woods for the trees. If the government’s point of view is objectively appreciated without bias or prejudice, the most intractable challenges invariably may find an amicable solution if not an entirely happy one.

The key to a successful way forward on self-regulation is to create systems and institutions that serve the long term interest and growth of the industry, a key requirement necessarily of which, has to be a harmoniously dignified equation with the state. The seeds that can allow the initiation and healthy evolution of such an institutional framework comprise transparency, fairness and avowed uncompromised adherence to openness, logic and objectivity. The IBDF and any other institutions involved in carrying out content regulation must, without the slightest hesitation, pick the best of professionals to devise and implement the system so set up. The temptation to find yes men must be scrupulously eschewed and firewalled in the institutional design itself, lest it becomes a death knell for this incipient initiative. The basic qualifications for those who manage self-regulation should include their understanding of the broadcasting sector, genuine belief in freedom of expression and creativity, a high degree of sensitivity to the sentiments of the common man, and are not unduly influenced by media “experts”. Such institutions will command credibility, ensure sustainability even when they occasionally seem a little inconvenient. Any teething troubles that may ensue will be transient and may not endure.

These unprecedented developments are progressive and path-breaking initiatives and deserve to be seen as such. It demands the foresight, sensitivity, prudence and sagacity of people who will be remembered by posterity as men and women of sound wisdom, fierce independence and uncompromising conviction, those who gave India one of the finest and healthiest institutions of the broadcasting and digital sector.

Golden era of Indian broadcasting

A great deal of this responsibility rests with the industry leaders, who have to unshackle themselves from the commercial compulsions of growth and contextualise and guide their decisions by a vision that envisages a unique and enviable ecosystem marked by transparency, objectivity, fairness, sensitivity and efficiency. They may as well be ushering in the golden era of Indian broadcasting.

Views are personal.  The author, Uday Kumar Varma an IAS officer, former secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Ministry of MSME is also an esteemed jury member on the SABERA 2021 Jury Board. You may also like his article Who will Watch the WatchDog and  Digital Age: Future of Democracy

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