Tue, Aug 7

What's new(s)? Govt 'kill Bill' set to muzzle media

Tuesday August 7, 10:17 AM
New Delhi: The Government's proposed Broadcasting Services Regulatory
Bill and Draft Content Code has met with strong opposition from
private news broadcasters with various media houses raising objections
on cross-media restrictions and self-regulation guidelines.

But oblivious to these strong protests, the Government looks all set
to introduce the Bill in the Monsoon Session of Parliament.

According to a new Content Code in the Bill, all Broadcast Service
Providers or television news channels must abide by what the
Government defines as "public order" and "national security".

The Bill, that many believe threatens to destroy the freedom of the
Press, also says that a content auditor will report to the Government
on the channel's news decisions.

But who decides what news is? Is the Bill a throwback to Emergency
days? And should the government regulate the media? Senior Journalist
Nalini Singh; Managing Editor, IBN7, Ashutosh participated in the big
media debate on CNN-IBN show Face the Nation conducted by Sagarika

Bill, a Farce?

The Bill says the public service providers shouldn't report on matters
of political or industrial controversy, should always bear in mind the
security of the nation, should always operate according to public
order, should take permission to do sting operations and all news
channels should have an auditor who reports daily to the government on
everything that goes on in a news channel.

When Nalini Singh was asked if the Bill is democratic or just
farcical, she said, "I can understand if it applies to Doordarshan
which is a government controlled channel. But it's certainly not

In an age when most people complain that the media is sensationalists,
it's violating privacy, and is turning out of control, shouldn't there
be some control on it?

"Absolutely. Media has made this a country where snakes get married
and there are ghosts in every building. I agree when viewers say that
and something has to happen," said Singh.

However she added that the interest of the government and public might
not always be co-terminus.

The Bill is absolutely farcical because according to it, the Press
cannot report on cases of rioting and criminal investigations. Doesn't
that mean that the government is turning its back on the people of

"Let me assure you that you can be using the same word (farcical) and
even stronger words whenever you want even though the Bill is passed,"
said Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi.

Singhvi added that there has been a detailed interaction with stakeholders.

Press for Public Service

But what is the government trying to control at a time when the Press
plays the role of public service in the country? People got hope from
the Press in the Jessica Lall and Priyadashini Mattoo case.

"You are just assuming that all those will be censored. But no country
leaves or gives up the right to regulate even on grounds of national
security. The media is getting hyper," Singhvi said.

But Ashutosh pointed out that in a meeting with the editors all of
them, "in unanimity, have rejected the Bill. Forget discussing the

He added that the bill is "anti-democratic", "anti-Constitution",
"anti-civil society" and is insensitive to the freedom of expression.

"What is anti-democratic is that the editors are not willing to
discuss," Singhvi retorted.

The AICC spokesperson informed that the ministry has already had five
rounds of discussion and they are going to have five more rounds of
discussion before the Bill is actually made final.

"It's an absolute draft and is nowhere near finality. We have tried to
be made the most democratic, non-governmental intrusive,
self-regulatory mechanism. And if you thing you should not have
national security concerns for interference, then go look at al the
model laws in US and Germany," Singhvi said.

But you can't compare US or UK to India where there is mass abuse of
public power, official misdemeanour and misuse of public office. We
need a much more active and vigilant Press.

Nalini Singh said "But in a population of 110 crore people, how do you
funnel what all these people are thinking about what the media means
to them via 10 discussions."

"How are we going to report a Nandigram? According to the Bill,
political and industrial controversy cannot be reported," the senior
journalist added.
But will the industry come together like they did when the Defamation
Bill of the Rajiv Gandhi government came out in 1998?

The Press rose against the proposed law, which aimed at curtailing
investigative reporting and curbing the traditional independence the

"I doubt it. Because there is a whole lot of money that has been
invested in the electronic medium and there is going to be a massive
investment. I am not sure if it's going to be as spontaneous and all
embracing as that march to India Gate against the Defamation Bill,"
Singh said.

How Does One Define Control?

"Go to any part of the country and you will know that politicians have
no credibility left. Bureaucrats are called corrupt all over the
country. But does that mean we should destroy the political system and
bureaucracy? I agree there are some channels which are very
sensationalists in nature. But that does not mean you curb the freedom
of expression. The Press is the Fourth Pillar of the democracy and if
you demolish that, the democracy cannot function properly," Ashutosh

"Now people have faith only in the judiciary and the Press. This move
by the government is a conspiracy to derail democracy," he added.

But Abishek Manu Singhvi felt the words used by the Ashutosh were
"very strong" and said his reaction "with utmost respect and humility
is hysterical, disproportionate and exaggerated".

"Are you suggesting that by a regulatory mechanism, provided in a Bill
yet to pass through four levels of scrutiny, you are going to amend
Article 19 1(A) of the Constitution?" Singhvi asked.

"The very same ground of defamation, public order, contempt,
incitement are all grounds for even limiting Article 19 1(A) of the
Constitution. Nothing is new because you have had it for the last 50
years," Singhvi added.

Courting Curtailment

Another clause of the content code says that - no civil court can have
the jurisdiction to entertain any suit on the Broadcasting Licensing
Authority. So that means that the Press can't even go to court.

But Singhvi disagreed and said, "That's totally wrong".

It's categorically mentioned in the code that there will be a content
auditor who will report to the report to the chief editor. And if
there is disagreement between the two, the chief editor will have to
notify to the Central government. Also after everything that's laid
down in the code, there is a qualification - "unless it is warranted".
Who is to say whether it is warranted or not?

"This is not even a working draft and there are four more levels to go
through. Today in anything that the judiciary or any other organ
passes, there is no censorship," Singhvi said.

"We want to send out a signal whenever you do irresponsible
journalism, not of the normal kind. But of a kind which is not
permitted by the boundaries of the journalism itself," said Singhvi.

The AICC Spokesperson also said that they as the government have a
sense of responsibility towards society. T

"There is no organ that is above the law and unfortunately the Press
appears to think that normal regulatory mechanisms that every other
organ or body should be submitted to, the Press is beyond them and
above them. The Press is a holy cow which cannot be touched in
society," said Singhvi.

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