At least for me, because I had never seriously considered it a possibility that an Indian government would proactively try to curb the press. Not blatantly, at least. And not until now. After all, this is India and this is the same government that passed the Right To Information Act.
Perhaps, things are changing. First, it was the blog block sometime back. Then the trimming of the RTI leaving it in ineffectual tatters. And now, it's the Broadcast Bill. At least, the blog block was a cause for much mirth. However, if the UPA government pushes through the new proposed Broadcast Bill 2006, it won't be funny, and pkblogs won't be around to help us workaround the ban.
While the proposed Bill is ostensibly an attempt to regulate the Indian media, its consequences could be disastrous. The Bill includes attempts to curb media ownership monopoly, cross-media investment, 'sting' operations and objectionable content.
Now what exactly is objectionable has been blissfully left undefined. This shall be judged by authorised persons, who incidentally are senior police officers and district magistrates.
While I believe that 'sting' operations need some kind of regulation, I do not think it should be enforced by the government. It should rather be an editorial policy against sensationalist coverage of stray events that do not tell us anything new. When Tehelka conducted their Operation West End, they were trying to prove a very relevant point that corruption was rampant in the highest circles of power. When India TV conducted its sham sting on poor Shakti Kapoor, I doubt if they even had a point to prove. Except for the TRPs, of course.
Anyone who has heard the adverb rupert used in conjunction with the verb murdoch will agree that media monopoly is a real and tangible threat to our democratic right to information. While the attempt to curb cross-media investment is a reasonable idea, it is a law that must be debated and discussed before it is tabled. All important Bills are tabled first and discussed later in India. It happened with the Reseervation Bill, and now with the proposed Broadcast Bill.
To enforce the provisions of the Bill, a new governing body, Broadcast Regulatory Authority of India, or BRAI, will be formed. This Indian Express report says that BRAI will have to sift through 15,070 hours of feature films and 20,881 hours of news material.
The Bill will also empower authorised persons to seize equipment if a channel is suspected of misdemeanour. The government could also declare a few subjects holy cows, which will make it illegal for the media to even report the events. Such sweeping powers in the hands of governmental agencies, as Tehelka's example showed us some years back, can have disastrous results.
Barkha Dutt's Hindustan Times column neatly summarises the consequences for the aam janata. Whatever one makes of her statement that the 24-hour news channel may be a monster, but it’s also a relentless beast that lets no detail escape its gaze, one can't help but agree with the broad premise of her arguments. She also draws an excellent parallel between the Bill's provisions for shutting down transmission if a channel promotes “disharmony, enmity, hatred or ill will” between communities, and Narendra Modi's reasons for temporarily blocking some private channels during the Gujarat carnage in 2002.
Outlook which also has a list of the most contentious clauses in the Bill, asks whether members of Parliament would have given their consent to a sting operation conducted to expose corruption in the MPLAD schemes. Read the entire story by Anuradha Raman here.
If this Bill is passed, there won't be too many reasons for us to call ourselves a free and democratic nation. This article draws parallels between Pakistan's existing Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and India's proposed BRAI, and how it could radically undermine the right to information.
This story has only begun. I am hoping the media outcry will force the govenrment and I&B Ministry to back down, and table a more janata friendly law.
DNA has a story here, and so does News Watch.
More reports on Indiantelevision.com here, here, here and here.
See also an editorial in The Hindu by Ammu Joseph.
Endnote: For comic relief, read about the Information and Broadcasting Secretary, Mr. S.K. Arora's ultimate babu's grievance: that of legislation that is too short.
The agenda is to design, elaborate and expand the present censorship guidelines. If one looks at such content guidelines in the US and the UK, such legislation runs into hundreds of pages. Here in India it's brief.How unfair, surely. Read the entire interview here.
Categories: government, politics, india, MSM, rights