Why NBA challenged CTN Rules 2021 in Kerala HC

The association fears that MIB will have the unbridled power to regulate news content based on whimsical interpretation of terms like ' obscene', 'anti-national' and ' good taste' in Rules 6 and 7

e4m by Javed Farooqui
Updated: Jul 19, 2021 8:28 AM

The News Broadcasters Association (NBA) has been on a collision course with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) first on Digital Media Ethics Code in IT Rules 2021 and most recently on the issue of amendments to the Cable Television Networks Rules (CTN), 1994.

The NBA, which counts 25 leading national and regional news broadcasting companies as its members, has got interim relief from the Kerala High Court in both matters. Last week, the Kerala HC directed the MIB not to take coercive action against NBA members for non-compliance with CTN Rules 2021.

Apart from NBA, The Mathrubhumi Printing & Publishing and its MD M.V. Shreyams Kumar have also filed petitions against the CTN Rules 2021, which prescribes a three-tier grievance redressal mechanism: 1) Regulation by broadcasters 2) Self-regulation by the self-regulating bodies of the broadcasters 3) Oversight mechanism by the Central Government.

The association has urged the Kerala HC to issue a writ or direction or order, declaring the offending parts of Section 20(2) and Section 20(3) of the Cable Television Networks Act, 1995; Rules 6 and 7 of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994; and the Cable Television Networks Rules, 2021 as ultra vires of Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) of the constitution of India and to strike them down as unconstitutional.

The NBA had also urged the HC to restrain MIB from implementing the above-mentioned provisions and taking any coercive steps against the news broadcasters. In its petition, the NBA has challenged the provisions of CTN Act 1995 as well as CTN Rules 1994 and 2021.

The NBA has argued that Rules 6 and 7 of the Cable TV Rules are beyond the permissible limits of restrictions envisaged under Article 19(2). It also stated that terms such as "good taste", "snobbish attitude", "criticism", "anti-national", "obscene", "deliberate", "suggestive", "offensive" and "repulsive" used in Rules 6 and 7 of the Cable TV Rules are vague, imprecise and ambiguous.

The association also said that the MIB has given itself unbridled and excessive powers under the Cable TV Act and Cable TV Rules to regulate the content of the news channels on a purely whimsical interpretation of the words used therein. "This would increase the possibility of misuse of power, leading to an imminent possibility of eroding the free speech rights of the Media under Article 19 of the Constitution of India," it stated.

According to the NBA plea, the government through the addition of the Oversight Mechanism has added multiple layers to the complaint redressal structure and made inroads into judicial power and vests itself with powers reserved exclusively for the judiciary and such exercise of power is without jurisdiction.

It also noted that Rule 18 of the CTN Rules 2021 stipulates that any self-regulatory body can register with the MIB only if it has 40 broadcasters. "This stipulation is arbitrary, irrational and perverse and is therefore being challenged by the Petitioners as there is no justification/basis for requiring 40 broadcasters to be members of a self-regulating body for registering with the Respondent," it added.

The Oversight Mechanism through Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC) consisting of government servants amounts to infringement of the free speech rights of the media, the petition says. It added that the establishment of the new structure including Oversight Mechanism at the third and final level of the complaint redressal will create a 'chilling effect' on the content of the media.

"Because by giving self-regulation a statutory flavour and including it in the statutory rules, the self-regulating body would function like a Tribunal which is presided over by a retired judge thereby making it a judicial process. The Additional Secretary being the Chairperson of the Oversight Mechanism along with other members of the executive would sit over the orders of a retired Supreme Court /High Court judge thereby compromising independence of the judicial process," the NBA contended.

It also contended that the Self Regulatory mechanism through News Broadcasters Standards Authority (NBSA) has been working effectively since 2008, based on its voluntarily adopted Code of Ethics and Guidelines by the members of the association. "Therefore, it does not lie in the mouth of the Respondent to say that it will recognize self-regulation but would require the statutory self-regulatory body to follow its rules/Programme Code/Code of Ethics as per the Impugned Rules."

The NBA submitted that until the year 2021, NBSA has adjudicated upon 4341 complaints besides issuing 12 guidelines since its inception in 2008. Furthermore, the NBSA has also issued 61 advisories on various issues for improving broadcasting standards to the members.

The NBSA consists of nine members: A Chairperson (being an eminent jurist), 4 independent members from the civil society, being persons with proven eminence in various field of activity, and 4 editor members from amongst the editorial staff of member broadcasters of NBA. The current Chairperson of NBSA is Justice AK Sikri.

The authority has a two-tier procedure for redressing grievances, whereby any viewer aggrieved by the content of any broadcast is required to first make a complaint to the concerned member broadcaster. If the complaint is not addressed or the complainant is not satisfied by redressal offered by the broadcaster within the stipulated period, the complainant may then forward the complaint to NBSA, which is the second level of redressal, provided that the complaint is against a member of NBA in respect to whom NBSA has jurisdiction.

It also said that the self-regulatory mechanism of the news broadcasters, NBSA has also noticed acknowledged by the Supreme Court’s Orders/Judgments.

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