Tandav controversy reignites OTT regulation debate

Following the uproar over the web series, experts weigh in on the next course of action for OTT players with respect to self-regulation

e4m by Javed Farooqui
Updated: Jan 20, 2021 9:01 AM

The issue of OTT regulation has once again come into the spotlight following the controversy over Amazon Prime Video's political thriller Tandav. The ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB) sought clarification from Amazon Prime Video following a complaint from BJP MP Manoj Kotak that the web series ridiculed Hindu deities.

Another BJP leader Ram Kadam, who is also the MLA from Ghatkopar (West) constituency, filed an FIR against the producers of the series at the Ghatkopar police station. The MIB letter to Amazon Prime Video and the ongoing protests forced the producers to issue an unconditional apology.

Amid the raging controversy, there were reports that the MIB will either create a self-regulatory body for OTT on the lines of the Press Council of India (PCI) or draft a law regulating OTT content. The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) is also expected to come out with the implementation guidelines for its self-regulatory code.

"The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has informed us regarding a large number of grievances and petitions received on various facets of the web series with serious concerns and apprehensions regarding its content hurting the sentiments of the people," 'Tandav' director Ali Abbas Zafar said in a statement posted on his Twitter account.

He also clarified that the web series is a work of fiction and the cast & crew did not have any intention to offend the sentiments of any religion. "The cast and crew of ‘Tandav’ take cognizance of the concerns expressed by the people and unconditionally apologize if it has unintentionally hurt anybody’s sentiments."

BJP MP Kotak was quick to respond to Zafar's statement. He said in a tweet, "Your creative freedom cannot become an excuse to damage social fabric, polarise people & divide communities. India is a very diverse nation and we have to respect the sentiment of EVERY religion. The unity of our great nation cannot be compromised."

Congress leader and former Minister of State (MoS) for Communications & Information Technology Milind Deora also took to Twitter to air his views on the contentious topic. Deora said that there is a need for a level-playing field by bringing OTT under the regulatory framework.

"Though I oppose political censorship, to create a level-playing field, OTT must be subject to the same regulation as TV broadcasters. Several countries are considering or already have similar rules. Keep GoI away by self-regulating through an OTT industry association?" Deora tweeted.

Speaking to exchange4media.com, The Q India Co-Founder and General Manager Sunder Aaron said that the Indian OTT market is on the cusp of huge growth globally, therefore, the government shouldn't do anything that will be detrimental to the growth of the sector. Having said that, Aaron is not too concerned about the OTT regulation as the ministry has been largely lenient with TV broadcasters barring few cases here and there.

"I hope they will be sensible about their expectations and their control of content and creative process in India because India is the greatest content market in the world right now. Nobody is looking towards China any more because they are closed and the US is also in the doldrums. India is hurtling ahead. It will be the size of Europe's SVOD market soon. The government has always been reasonable. I think some people overreact. I am not too concerned about that. We have to be under somebody's auspices. Since it's under MIB, I don't think they will have CBFC kind of certification for OTT content," Aaron noted.

Bodhitree Multimedia MD Mautik Tolia said that the OTT regulation is a very complicated area. "The OTT regulation has to be like television because you cannot monitor that much content. Considering the volume of content being created on a day-to-day basis on OTT, it is not possible to have a censor board kind of a mechanism. There has to be self-regulation. They will come out with a code eventually."

Tolia further stated that having a set of guidelines or rules might work in the favour of content creators and producers. "In the absence of a basic framework what is also happening is that it is open to all kinds of interpretation and all kinds of legal and criminal action against creators. In a way, if a code exists it will also protect creators and filmmakers. You can always argue that you are following this code and are under the purview of MIB guidelines. As long as it is consultative within some kind of a framework, I don't think it should be a problem."

The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) in a Twitter thread argued that self-regulation sounds good in theory but is actually bad for the OTT ecosystem. "Given the high (but poorly scripted!) drama around Tandav, let us look back on why even though, “self-regulation” sounds like a nice and fuzzy solution for online video streaming it is actually harmful!" IFF tweeted.

It also stated that there is no legal basis for the MIB to regulate OTT content. "Recently the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was allocated the area of online streaming but there does not exist any legal basis for it to regulate it. Simply no law exists that empowers it to censor online streaming videos."

It also cited a Delhi HC judgement to highlight the fact that OTT platforms also follow rules contrary to the claims that they don't abide by the law. "People incorrectly claim OTT platforms like Amazon Prime/Netflix do not follow laws. There are clear legal disincentives for them to air content that can lead to criminal prosecutions. Exactly what the Delhi HC said while dismissing a PIL."

The IFF argued that self-regulation will lead to censorship which, in turn, will kill creativity. "Now, what’s the harm if these same OTT Platforms want to insulate themselves from random cases & “self-regulate”? Well, there is a grave likelihood it would lead to censorship and kill creativity. Self Censorship is OTT = TV!

"What is worse? Imagine a system in which people can just send complaints on, “what they do not like” to the Government which then forwards it to this, “self-regulatory body”. Sounds awful? What’s worse. There is no legal authority for any such complaint forwarding. Today, OTT content produced in India is unleashing a high amount of creative talent and industry. It is making sure we are having a global brand — a soft power — that is current and suited towards the audience tastes of TODAY."

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