“I don’t see why one cannot come up and talk with a Government that is so liberal. I don’t see why we should approach this with apprehension. We don’t want to have a Draconian act hanging out there that hampers creativity. Yet again, there must be some ground rules that we should all abide by,” thus spake Minister of Information & Broadcasting Ambika Soni on the content code issue at the recently held NewsNext 2009 conference.
The positive stance of the Information and Broadcasting Minister has allayed a lot of apprehensions of the broadcast industry regarding content regulation. When exchange4media spoke to industry stalwarts on this issue, they came out wholeheartedly in favour of self-regulation.
As is known, the content code issue has been a contentious issue with neither the broadcast industry nor the Ministry backing off. There has been no agreement between the industry members and the Government on what is perceived as a direct control over the freedom of the media to express itself and the freedom of the press.
In fact, the editors of broadcast media on August 22, 2009 announced the setting up of a body, christened Broadcast Editors’ Association (BEA), to strengthen the values of objective and fair broadcast journalism and to protect and promote the freedom of expression.
Going back a little in time, it may be recalled the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) had expressed its great disappointment over the Content Code finalised by the I&B Ministry in March 2008. In a letter to the then Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, PR Dasmunsi, IBF President Jawahar Goel had said that the finalised version “had negated all the positive cooperation and constructive efforts that had gone into framing of the Content Code/ Guidelines and the Complaints Redressal Mechanism (CRM) that was given to the Ministry on February 21, 2008”.
The letter had further said, “It was really surprising that after detailed discussions with broadcasters during August 2007, first at the Secretary level, and then with the Minister himself, the consensus had veered around to self-regulation as being the preferred way for content regulation, but the Ministry, all of a sudden, chose to simply cast away the document carefully prepared by the IBF instead of sitting together and finding a way out to iron out differences, if any, and arrive at consensus.”
There were discussions in 2007 as well on the ‘The proposed Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill 2007’, which had not won too many votes from industry players. One of the first points of the Bill, which was that it would enforce a Content Code that will get into the basics of what can or cannot be shown and when on TV channels, has become a very hotly debated subject among media experts then too.
The industry’s current stance
KVL Narayan Rao, CEO, NDTV Group, affirmed, “Independent and credible industry bodies like IBF and News Broadcasters Association (NBA) should lead the formation of broadcast and content codes. These cannot be imposed on TV channels by the Government. In our view, self regulation is the best and only acceptable form of regulation. It is the only long term method of ensuring improved standards. The proposed Broadcasting Bill 2006 has clauses which are looked upon by the industry as restrictive and curbing freedom of the press. There are concerns about unbiased implementation. Clauses relating to take over in certain situations, punishments like revocation of license and fines, powers given to local authorities and so on are draconian and unacceptable. The industry has already petitioned to the Government for a review of the Bill.”
When asked whether the thought process of the current Government officials on content regulation was different from what it was a few years back and whether the conversations in the last two years had brought the Government and the broadcasters on any common ground, Rao replied, “Well, just recently the Government has reiterated that it has no intention of imposing any kind of censorship on the media. Also, times have changed, and both the Government and the industry are engaged in constructive discussions to find a solution to this. Imposing a content regulator on the industry would not help. The Government has welcomed the suggestion of the industry for a debate on the matter. This signifies a transparent approach to this problem and we are hopeful that we can work with the Government on this issue.”
A lot has changed in the last two years, especially with NBA in place and to some extent even the BARC on its way. Rao further said, “The News Broadcasters Association (NBA) has achieved a lot in the little time it has been in existence. We have given ourselves a code of ethics in reporting and we have constituted a broadcast standards authority headed by a former Chief Justice of India to go into complaints from viewers. History will show that these are huge steps towards betterment and improvement of standards. Most broadcasters realise the need for self regulation and the highest standards.”
However, there has also been some instability in the NBA with India TV exiting and then rejoining, or BV Rao’s exit and that seat not being filled up.
On this, Rao said, “These are teething problems. The fact is that India TV, an extremely important member, remains in the NBA and the body is even stronger today.”
Meanwhile, conversations are on between the Government and industry stakeholders regarding creating a body that will have representatives from all walks, including members of consumer organisations, government officials, legal luminaries and so on.
“I don’t support the need for any other code. Self regulation is the only form that is acceptable,” Rao maintained.
According to Raghav Bahl, Managing Director, Network18 Group, “India is a genuinely free and liberal democracy, which simply means that the news media has to be free and has to go according to its own code of conduct. Anybody who doesn’t believe in that has got it wrong, it’s as simple as that. If India has to remain a free democracy, then the news media has to remain free then the news media has to regulate itself, nobody can come and tell it what to do, and if anyone has those thoughts then those thoughts are all wrong.”
He added, “It’s not that India got a democracy that started day before yesterday, it has been there for decades. So, media will pick up this debate, television shows will continue to run, politicians will speak a few lines, but I firmly believe that nobody can interfere with the freedom of the media, particularly news media.”
Speaking at the NewsNext 2009 conference, Rajat Sharma, Chairman & Editor-in-Chief, India TV, had said, “Madam Minister (of Information & Broadcasting, Ambika Soni) said that there should be a body independent of the Government that can regulate news. More than that, I think the body should be represented by every member of the society and other stakeholders that can have a reason to complain against the broadcasters.”
With the Ministry’s positive and open to talks stance and the industry too willing to take that extra step, one can hope for an amicable resolution on the content code. How soon that would happen? Well, only time will tell.