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Is Broadcast Bill media-friendly?

Every few years, a nervous government decides that the media has gone overboard and must be subject to 'regulation'.

india Updated: Jul 26, 2006 02:34 IST

Every few years, a nervous government decides that the media has gone overboard and must be subject to 'regulation'. Democracy and free speech do not mean spreading canard about public authority, endangering national security and allowing for obscenity, runs the argument.

With the new Broadcast Services Regulation Bill 2006 having leaked out, there is considerable disquiet that another attempt is being made to muzzle the media, in particular the electronic media. However, Information & Broadcasting Minister P.R. Dasmunsi described the bill as "media-friendly". Rejecting suggestions that it required changes, he said, "there will be no dilution or pollution of the bill" when it is introduced in Parliament.

The promulgation of Emergency in June 1975 was accompanied with Press Censorship exercised through the Defense and Internal Security of India Rules. The guidelines issued by the chief censor in I&B Ministry included directions to editors not to leave editorial columns blank, or use quotations from Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and others in a manner prejudicial to the government. Directions were also given how court proceedings should be reported and judgments published.

A few years later in 1982 Bihar chief minister Jagganath Mishra introduced the Bihar Press Bill in the assembly that empowered ordinary district officials to arrest without warrant a journalist or publisher for reports which -- in their opinion -- were "scurrilous or malicious". Conviction could lead to a five-year jail term. It was only after a nation-wide strike by newspapers and scribes on September 4, 1982 that the Bihar government was forced to retrace its steps.

We now have the Broadcast Regulation Bill. The introductory notes on the rationale for the bill states: "The existing dispensation for content regulation is not very effective. The Ministry receives complaints about obscene and objectionable content on TV and this has been raised in number of Parliament questions and calling attention motions also."

What the note does not reveal is what the complaints found obscene and objectionable. Besides the moral outrage against skin and sensation, MPs and members of government have also been bitter about sting operations and TV exposes that have trapped many in positions of power. There is obviously an attempt to equate titillating content with investigative journalism, and tarnish attempts of the latter variety as "invasion of privacy."

Now, let us see how 'media-friendly' the bill is. Section 4 (2) in Chapter 2 gives sweeping powers to the government -- without any checks and balances -- to refuse to register a TV channel or to cancel the registration of a channel if it is considered to be a threat to national security, national integrity or public order; or even if the logo or symbol in its full or abbreviated form is deemed to be vulgar or similar to a terrorist organisation.

Similarly, under Section 5 (1) in the same chapter, the bill empowers the government acting in public interest at the time of national crisis to "take over the control of management of any of the broadcasting services… suspend its operations or entrust the public service broadcaster to manage it in the manner directed by the government for such period as it deems fit…" This provision brings back images of the Emergency when the I&B Ministry forced the merger of the two news agencies -- UNI and PTI -- under a common government-controlled management.

To complete the circle, and to provide the necessary teeth to the officers of the central government and the Broadcast Regulatory Authority (BRAI), the bill provisions in Ch.3 Section 24 gives the powers to the officers to inspect, seize and confiscate equipment.

The powers are sweeping and could lead to fairly junior monitoring officials entering TV or radio stations under the guise of technical inspection, or, worse still, to stop broadcasts and carry away expensive equipment. What this means for the future of investigative journalism is not difficult to imagine.

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