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Understanding India’s Latest Broadcast Bill: Concerns Surrounding Censorship And Press Freedom

The Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting published the Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill last November, which has led to several concerns being voiced by legal experts. More recently, the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI), and the Editors Guild of India (EGI) have expressed their concerns. This Bill aims to replace the three-decade-old Cable Television Networks Regulation Act of 1995, attempting to create one legal framework for the nation’s broadcasting sector.

The Modi government released a draft of the Bill in November and invited comments from the public, with the deadline set for January 15. The existing legal framework covers television, internet-based broadcasting platforms such as YouTube, and OTT platforms such as Netflix and Disney+Hotstar. However, the newer version aims to encompass all of these, along with DTH, internet television, and, according to critics, digital news portals, thereby raising concerns for press freedom. The 72-page-long bill may seem very detailed but consists of inconsistencies and gaps in regulation. There are at least 60 instances in the draft that allow the government to make changes and frame rules after the law has been passed, providing excessive executive control over the final structure of the Bill.


What are the key features of the Bill?

One of the main focal points of this Bill is to introduce a framework that regulates digital news platforms and OTT content produced via the internet, such as Netflix. The Bill also aims to introduce a system of self-regulation through content evaluation committees formed by OTT platforms themselves. OTT platforms will be mandated to broadcast only those programs cleared by these committees, except for those exempted by the government from certification. Another crucial element in the Bill is the establishment of the Broadcast Advisory Council. This council will serve to inform and advise the Union Government about violations of the program and advertisement code. 


How is this Bill problematic for Independent News?

The incorporation of digital news platforms alongside OTT platforms in the Bill poses significant issues. The proposed law explicitly mandates prior registration with the government for any broadcast services. The critical concern arises from the lack of differentiation between various platforms, failing to clarify whether independent media platforms or individual journalists utilizing social media platforms must also undergo government registration. If such a requirement exists, it raises substantial concerns about impeding the freedom of the press.

The crux of the concern for independent media lies within Sections 19 and 20 of the Bill. Section 19 stipulates that all broadcasters must comply with the yet-to-be-established Program Code and Advertising Code of the Bill, thereby granting the government undue regulatory powers. Conversely, Section 20 dictates that any individual broadcasting news and current affairs programs through any platform, whether it be a news portal or social media, is also obligated to adhere to the Program Code and Advertising Code outlined in the Bill.

According to Tejasi Panjiar and Prattek Waghre of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), this clause “may have wide-ranging consequences on independent journalists who rely on the digital platforms such as social media to publish news that may typically be viewed as unpalatable to the government”. They also believe that “this clause raises alarm as an individual sharing news on social media platforms may become liable if the broadcaster/broadcasting network, self-regulatory organization, or a government-appointed council believe that they have not complied with the codes. This may affect online free speech and the freedom of journalistic expression of a news broadcaster or an independent news disseminator, whether in an organizational or individual capacity”.

Another critical issue with the Bill pertains to establishing the ‘content evaluation committee’ (CEC) for every broadcaster, tasked with approving each piece of content. This constitutes a significant step towards censorship, as the committee’s composition is determined by the government. In digital media outlets or YouTube-centric platforms, there already exist editors responsible for commissioning, approving, and proofreading every piece of work. Introducing an additional committee adds an unnecessary layer of editorial censorship, which appears redundant. For independent journalists who handle all aspects of their work individually, the formation of such a committee is impractical. This could pose a substantial restraint not only on freedom of speech but also on the freedom of journalistic expression.

This Bill introduces a three-tier broadcasting regulation system - one overseen by the broadcaster, another by the broadcasting organization, and a third by a government body known as the Broadcast Advisory Council (BAC). The government-appointed members of this council raise concerns about the potential censorship of content deemed unfavorable to the government, posing a threat to journalistic free speech. Non-compliance with these regulations may result in various penalties, ranging from content censorship to the airing of a public apology, and even the cancellation of the registration to broadcast. The incorporation of such rules to limit the influence of journalism is highly alarming.


What are the critics of the Bill saying?

The Editor’s Guild of India (EGI) strives to protect freedom of speech and believes that this Bill will prove “adverse to the spirit of freedom of speech and freedom of the press guaranteed by the constitution”. They fear that this Bill would create an “overarching censorship framework” and could be used to regulate and prohibit content on “vague grounds.”

The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) has shared that this Bill will “irreparably damage free press, free speech, and creative freedom” in the country. In a recent press release, the NWMI has expressed several concerns with the Bill. A few of their concerns include the government’s definition of news and current affairs programs that will allow them to regulate YouTubers and citizen journalists. This Bill will also create an environment that will encourage creators to make content that avoids views opposing or criticizing the government and that the presence of the BAC will unfairly monitor journalistic content.

Several journalistic bodies such as the National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ), the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), and the Andhra Pradesh Working Journalists Federation (APWJF) have also voiced their concerns about the Bill, calling it a “gateway to censorship”. Their statement asserts, “Many clauses, particularly those relating to self-censorship, are completely impractical given the nature of small news media. Some dangerous clauses include the power to seize electronic devices including studio equipment. There are apprehensions that the Bill could muffle independent voices including those of YouTube journalists, news analysts, and digital websites”.

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