TV Content under the Scanner

By: Col K K Sharma

A bench headed by chief justice P. Sathasivam issued notices to the ministries of information and broadcasting, law and justice, and information technology in response to an item of public interest litigation (PIL) that sought the court’s intervention to bring TV channels under a regulatory framework.

Filed by a civil society body called Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), the petition claims that while the print media is regulated, there is no regulatory body or censorship for TV channels.

“The channels claim only a self-regulation which has proved to be completely ineffective. The self-regulating bodies...are private companies under control of the media houses” and points to a conflict of interest, the petition states.

The PIL filed through Hindu Janajagruti Samiti’s Mumbai-based lawyer Rajeev K. Panday also said that a 2008 government order will not preclude an authorised officer under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act from initiating criminal prosecution against a channel in case of violation of provisions of the Act.

“The petition raises a substantial question of public importance and public interest relating to the necessity of an effective regulation of electronic media in matters involving public morality, public decorum, social tranquillity and public order,” Mr. Panday said.

“There is no regulatory body for TV channels which is comparable with Press Council of India that regulates the print media. Though TV channels are audio-visual media, there is no censorship on their contents. In other words, a film that cannot be released without censor certificate can straightaway be released on a TV channel,” the PIL said.

PIL also alleged that mushrooming TV channels were crossing every norm of decent reporting in the absence of official guidelines and given the lax self-regulating mechanism for control of broadcast content.

Notices were also issued to the Press Council of India (PCI), the Election Commission, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a grouping of national news channels, and the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), which represents the interests of the major entertainment channels.

Broadcasters have always objected to coming under any kind of regulatory control since the beginning of the industry. For some reasons Government has always had a soft approach dealing with broadcasters as if it always wanted to keep the media on its right side. Broadcast Bill which was first presented before the Parliament in 1997 and sought to regulate content has not seen the light since then. It has been amended several times and attempts were made to present it before the Parliament for enactment but it never got through and still lies in the cold storage in the Ministry. Only a draft is available on the Ministry’s website.

Both the NBA and the IBF have their own regulatory bodies headed by former senior judges and have prominent members from civil society as well as representatives of media owners. The regulatory mechanism institutionalized nearly five years ago not only monitors content, but is also equipped to address complaints related to programming.

The News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), the operative regulatory regime, follows a code of ethics and standards as well as offers details on the procedure to register complaints. It’s the same with the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC), a body of the IBF that keeps an eye on entertainment content. These are self regulatory bodies but have full-fledged teams drawn from all walks of life. Like the Press Council of India, which is headed by a former chief justice of India, and includes a parliamentarian, other civil society members as well as print media owners and editors, these bodies also have a diverse membership and are not run only by media owners, according to the experts.

However, these bodies do not have a statutory status right now, but these bodies have applied to the ministry of information and broadcasting for such a status.

Also, while the petition claims “a film that cannot be released without censor certificate can straightway be released on a TV channel”, experts say films can be aired on television channels only if they are certified by the censor board. However, even films certified for adult or UA viewing in cinemas are shown on the television without a hitch, sometimes even in prime time. It’s not only the films but even the TV serials these days have adult content, not meant for family viewing and no TV serial is censored.

The petition also raised doubts over the collection of monetary penalty by the self-regulating bodies, saying the private bodies that regulate TV channels “have a limited power of imposing fine up to Rs.1 lakh, which goes into their own kitty”.

It is true that NBSA and the BCCC are not-for-profit organizations and fines imposed on channels for non-compliance stay with these regulatory bodies and do not go back to the channels. However all TV channels are not members of the NBA and IBF. Out of the 365 broadcast companies broadcasting 860 TV channels only 35 are members of these organizations and also these are mostly owned by a few large broadcast groups like Sun TV, ZEE, Star TV and MSM.

Self regulatory mechanism of broadcast content is many a time under the scanner being inadequate and ineffective. I&B Ministry has also been pulled up in the Parliament for having no control on the media but the standard answer from ministry is that government believes in freedom of press and self regulations.

Even our Vice-President Hamid Ansari noted that there was a need for “self-regulation" of the media or "external corrective" measures. "Regulation is a code of ethics. And, as every aspect in our lives needs regulation, why should one branch (media) of life not be regulated that it boasts should remain unregulated"? Ansari said. The Vice-President was speaking at the release of a new book 'Journalism: Ethics and Responsibilities" at his residence and called it "timely". "It (book) put a searchlight on a contemporary issue of great relevance. Its central concern is summed up in a sentence that I chanced upon while scanning the newspapers this morning. 'Journalism, a great profession, has fallen upon disrepute because media houses have moved away from serious business of news gathering into the world of power, advertisement, glamour, mega-festivals, as editors and anchors acquire celebrity status'," Ansari said. He said changes are occurring in the media and therefore people in it must acknowledge the "need for corrective" measures, either a "self-corrective" or if needed, an "external one". Citing Leveson Inquiry in the UK, Ansari said it held "lessons for us" that we (Indian media) were "less transparent".

"We could draw some lessons from Leveson Report and its recommendations...Seven times in the past seventy years, media practices have been inquired into by a Royal Commission in the UK. We are less transparent," he added.

Two weeks ago, a CJI-headed bench had refused to give any relief to a writ petition filed by religious leader Asaram Bapu, who has been accused of several cases of sexual assault, seeking to rein in TV channels from projecting him as guilty even before commencement of trial against him.

Advocate Shekhar Naphade argued that the violations of broadcast codes were mainly meant for character assassination of certain persons. He also said it had become a trend with TV channels to indulge in character assassination of important persons just to get popular among the masses. He said they knew that there was no regulatory mechanism to haul them up for crossing the line. To a question from the bench, he said the Press Council of India (PCI) had no jurisdiction over the content of TV channels as it dealt only with print media.

HJS said, "The absence of any effective regulation and checks/balances for TV channels has posed a great threat to public morality, public order and public interest wherein the citizens of India are exposed to TV programmes that are in blatant breach of programme code."

It said the February 19, 2008 programme code, issued by the information and broadcasting ministry, applied to cable TV operators who distribute the channels to homes but not to those who broadcast the programmes and proposed setting up of a high-powered committee to regulate the content of TV channels.

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Col Sharma is a telecom engineer and a law graduate who has been the Chief Editor of Cable Quest Magazine.

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