The Union Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry’s reported decision to establish a regulatory body to address content-specific complaints against private television channels and radio stations has failed to cut ice with the Broadcast Editors’ Association (BEA). Speaking to exchange4media, BEA General Secretary NK Singh hit out at the government arguing that the state cannot subject media to undue restrictions in the name of public interest. “Even the Constitution makers have not given such a power to the state,” said Singh.
Referring to Article 19(2) of the Constitution which deals with reasonable restrictions on free speech, he pointed out that the government can curb speech on various grounds including defamation and public order, but not public interest. He juxtaposed the concerned provisions with Article 19(6) associated with the freedom of profession. In the case of the latter, the government can impose restrictions in the interest of the general public.
“The government must understand this fundamental difference,” said Singh, as he noted that their notion of venturing into the realm of media regulation is misplaced. While freedom of the press is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, it flows from the freedom of speech guaranteed as a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a). “In any mature democracy, one cannot accept this kind of power that enables the state to regulate the media. Any such misadventure from the government’s side will not be countenanced by the media,” he added.
The BEA has not yet formally approached the government since they are waiting for tangible evidence which corroborates reports of a government-sponsored regulatory body. According to a leading English language newspaper, the government’s one-stop regulator will put an end to the practice of self-regulation. As of now, bodies such as the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) and Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) play a prominent role in initiating action against erring advertisers and broadcasters. Self-regulatory bodies have been often criticized for lacking power and their perceived inability to take tough decisions against industry players.
Countering the notion that self-regulation is an oxymoron, Singh felt that it was wrong to say that self-regulatory bodies were not working properly. Exchange4Media contacted the leadership at several industry bodies such as the Indian Broadcasting Foundation, News Broadcasters Association and CII National Committee on M&E to enquire about their stand on the proposed government regulator. While our queries went unanswered, there is an impression that a government-controlled regulator may lead to restrictions on the media’s functioning. The move in question has come after the Union I&B Ministry reportedly received a direction from the Supreme Court to set up a statutory mechanism to look into the rising complaints against content aired on private television channels and radio stations.