Three-tier grievance redressal system for broadcasters a boon or bane?

Will the Centre's move ensure parity between TV and OTT and give more teeth to the SRBs? Experts weigh in

e4m by Javed Farooqui
Updated: Jun 18, 2021 11:31 AM

The central government has prescribed a three-tier grievance redressal mechanism for TV broadcasters by amending the Cable Television Networks (CTN) Rules to bring them at par with the over the top (OTT) and digital news platforms. Like the IT rules, the amended CTN Rules allow broadcasters to form more than one self-regulatory body (SRB).

The three-tier grievance redressal mechanism is as follows: (i) Level I - A self-regulation by broadcasters; (ii) Level II - Self-regulation by the self-regulating bodies of the broadcasters; and (iii) Level III - Oversight mechanism by the Central Government.

Currently, the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and News Broadcasters Federation (NBF) have an internal self-regulatory mechanism for content related complaints. Over and above that, there is an institutional mechanism by way of an Inter-Ministerial Committee to address grievances of citizens relating to violation of the Programme/Advertising Codes under the Rules.

Any person aggrieved by the content of a programme of a channel as being not in conformity with the Programme Code or the Advertising Code may file a complaint in writing to the broadcaster, followed by the SRB. If the grievance remains unaddressed at the first two levels, the complaints can approach the IMC. However, the complaints relating to Advertising Code will continue to be governed by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI).
By amending the CTN Rules, the government has laid down a statutory mechanism for strengthening the grievance redressal structure. The amendment was also necessitated due to a Supreme Court ruling in the Common Cause Vs Union of India & Others case whereby the central government was advised to frame appropriate rules to formalise the complaint redressal mechanism. Some broadcasters had also requested for giving legal recognition to their associations/bodies.

According to the I&B ministry, the Cable Television Networks (Amendment) Rules, 2021 provide statutory mechanism, which would be transparent and can benefit the citizens. At the same time, self-regulating bodies of broadcasters would be registered with the Central Government.

The rules will have to be followed by over 900 TV channels and their apex bodies.

"The @MIB_India has by amending the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994, developed a statutory mechanism to redress citizens' grievances & complaints against programmes of TV Channels. The @MIB_India has also decided to recognize Statutory Bodies of TV channels under CTN Rules," I&B minister Prakash Javadekar said in a tweet.

Are the amendments a boon or a bane?
A senior official from a TV broadcasting company said that the move will ensure parity between TV and OTT and will give more teeth to the SRBs. "The broadcasters themselves had asked the MIB to give recognition to the BCCC and NBSA. The decisions taken by the SRBs will now be legally binding on the channels," the official said.

He also pointed out that the Bombay High Court in the Sushant Singh Rajput death case coverage had questioned the centre as to why News Broadcasters Standards Authority (NBSA) guidelines are not given more teeth.

According to a legal expert, SRBs like Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) and NBSA will now get a statutory power. "Court cases might see a reduction, and now you would have a proper mechanism at three levels. Broadcaster level grievance redressal is at the first level, SRB at the second level and the IMC at the third level," he stated.

The expert noted that while SRBs will get more legal teeth, but even their orders can be challenged at the IMC. "Since there is statutory flavour at the third level, I think compliances should go up. Even earlier, BCCC order barring a few exceptions were largely complied with."

He also pointed that the IMC, which sits at the third-level, will now have the benefit of two decisions - broadcaster level self-regulation and at the BCCC level. Furthermore, consumers and viewers will also have a redressal mechanism. "The courts also know where to guide parties to solve these complaints. Since we have an alternative remedy, court cases should go down," he stated.

Giving a contrarian view, TMT Law Practice Managing Partner Abhishek Malhotra believes that the amendments give legitimacy to bureaucrats to decide on orders that have been passed by retired judges. He also said that the amendments are unconstitutional and will lead to a conflict of interest situation.

"While CTN Rules have been amended to be consistent with the requirements of what's been set out in the IT rules, however, the issue still remains whether the level of content self-regulation that is sought to be achieved through these rules is constitutionally valid or not," Malhotra contended.

He also said that broadcasters have freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution to create and distribute content. He added that the constitution does place reasonable restrictions through Article 19(2) and the parliament has the right to pass laws that curb free speech “in the interests of public order”.

Malhotra further stated that the Sections 6 and 7 of the CTN Rules which talk about Programme and Advertisement Code respectively are rules that provide for much wider application of fetters or the limitations than is prescribed even under the constitution. "For example, if your content is not in good taste and decency, then it can be stopped or prohibited. Earlier, it was an argument for the government to make that because you are in violation of the Programme Code, therefore I will take this action under section 20 or 21. Now they have introduced a rule which says that if you are in violation we can take an action against you. You can't do that. The act already provides for a proper process to be followed."

Earlier, most of the consumer complaints were being addressed at the BCCC or NBSA level, as the IMC was an ad hoc and non-statutory body. "Now you are placing an IMC formed only of bureaucrats to sit in appeals against judgements made by BCCC or NBSA which are bodies headed by Retired Supreme Court or High Court judges. So essentially, a judge decides on something, and you get a bureaucrat to decide over and above that. It is clearly in breach of the principal in the constitution of separation of powers."

Malhotra said that the amendments are out-and-out illegal, unconstitutional and should be challenged.

LawNK Partner Abhinav Shrivastava said self-regulation is the appropriate mechanism for dealing with content regulation. "It is a good move to recognise self-regulatory bodies because it shifts the burden away from the government to technocrats in the broadcast industry. This is the fall-out of the Republic TV case in Delhi HC. In that case, the MIB had also said that we are looking into giving more teeth to the NBSA," he said.

According to Srivastav, the bigger question is what is the expectation of the ministry from these bodies and how integrity will be maintained. "We need clarity on which self-regulatory bodies the MIB will recognise and what will be the basis of that recognition. Self-regulation will only work if the body is legitimate and the functioning remains independent of its members."

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