Stakeholders are voicing apprehensions over the possible impact of the Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 on the news and current affairs genre, with growing concerns about potentially limiting creative freedom.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting aims to replace the outdated Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995 with the Broadcasting Services bill.
Section 20 of the bill stands out as a grey area for stakeholders in the news business, especially independent creators. They fear getting caught between the benefits of credibility that the regulations bring and the potential drawbacks of censorship that could accompany it.
“While it’s good for the content creators and independent journalists’ community to be regulated, I am a bit sceptical about the execution and the final result of this move… I would want authorities to vet and/or filter the content being published left, right and centre, but there’s an equal amount of concern about some parts of the system using it to suit their agenda(s),” said an independent news content creator, who did not want to be identified.
What does Section 20 say?
This section is dedicated to news and current affairs programmes.
It says, “Any person who broadcasts news and current affairs programmes through an online paper, news portal, website, social media intermediary, or other similar medium but excluding publishers of newspapers and replica e-papers of such newspapers, as part of a systematic business, professional, or commercial activity shall adhere to the Programme Code and Advertisement Code.”
The provisions of the act, as applicable to OTT broadcasting network operators, shall also apply with necessary changes to such persons, and the government may prescribe rules and issue guidelines.
What do we know about programme and advertising codes?
Programme and advertising codes are prescribed under the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994. Among other things, the Programme Code says no programme that offends good taste or decency, contains criticism of friendly countries, attacks religions or communities, is not suitable for unrestricted public exhibition and others should be carried by cable services.
The Advertising Code bars content that offends morality, decency and religious susceptibilities of subscribers, among other things.
Section 19 of the bill says different programme codes and advertising codes may be prescribed for programmes and advertisements carried by linear broadcasting services, on-demand broadcasting services, radio broadcasting services and any other category of broadcasting service as notified by the Central government.
Stakeholders argue that Section 20 of the bill may have wide-ranging consequences on independent journalists who rely on digital platforms such as social media to publish news.
“This rule is not limited to journalists; it also extends to individuals sharing news on online blogs or platforms. This sparks concerns as someone sharing news on social media may face liability if the broadcaster, broadcasting network, self-regulatory organisation, or a government-appointed council deems non-compliance with the codes,” said an expert on condition of anonymity.
Stakeholders said such regulations could jeopardise access to a variety of perspectives. They argued that individuals broadcasting news may tailor their content to align with government preferences to avoid penalties for non-compliance, potentially limiting the diversity of viewpoints available to users.
Another journalist who exited mainstream media to start independent news offerings across social media channels said, “When a large media organisation is questioned under these provisions, they have a battery of lawyers and public policy specialists to manage the situation or tone down the order, but an individual creator has no such resources.”
There is need for more clarity on all these provisions of the bill.
“It would help to know if the programme and advertising codes are the same ones that are defined in the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994. In case they are, there needs to be clear definitions of vague terms used in the act such as good taste and decency,” the stakeholders added.