January 28, 2024

Scrap the Broadcast Services Bill

THE Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023, a draft of which was circulated for public comments by the union ministry of information and broadcasting in November 2023, is yet another step by the Modi government to restrict and stifle freedom of expression. It seeks to replace the nearly three-decade-old Cable Television Networks Regulation Act, 1995. Prior to this, the government has brought in the Telecommunications Act of 2023, the Digital Personal Data Protection Act of 2023 and, earlier, the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. The last of these have already been stayed by the Bombay and Madras High Courts on grounds of violating the Constitution. The Broadcasting Services Bill in fact seeks to bring in provisions similar to the ones in the IT Rules of 2021. All of these laws and rules are marked by a common theme: increasing control of the government on the expanding universe of media and digital data and arbitrary powers to penalise or stop transmission on vaguely defined grounds.

The Broadcasting Bill is a charter for censorship providing for expanding government control and regulation over all types of media – from television channels and films to OTT platforms and even independent YouTube channels. In the name of streamlining and rationalising regulatory provisions, it imposes a uniform and rigid framework for all types of broadcast – whether on TV or internet – and provides for arbitrary powers of control and penalties to the government. The bill also lays the ground for expanding the boundaries of censorship to include social media platforms like WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal messaging services. A look at the definitions provided in the bill exposes the draconian nature of its intent. For instance, Section 1(dd) defines “Programmes” as “any audio, visual or audio-visual content, sign, signals, writing, images which is transmitted using a content, sign, signals, writing, images which is transmitted using a broadcasting network”. Any news and current affairs programme will invite attention and they would have to adhere to a code. All internet and media users, including those who might send a message or cartoon on a smart phone, would become liable. The bill will become an instrument against all independent YouTube journalists, news analysts and digital news websites. Even subscribers to sites and YouTube channels would be under scrutiny. Definitions of social media intermediaries are almost identical to those in the IT Rules. All broadcasters will require to submit their subscriber data periodically to the government thus throwing privacy out of the window. The bill provides for content to be “pre-certified” by a content evaluation committee (CEC), the number of members of which and quorum etc may be specified by the government.

The bill lays down that if “any authorised officer” believes that the Act is being violated, equipment may be seized and confiscated. Similarly, the authorised officer can prohibit transmission of any programme for protecting the sovereignty, integrity or security of India, friendly relations with other nations, public order, decency and morality.  This vague and blanket authorisation is an invitation to unbridled censorship by the government. At the top, the bill provides for a Broadcasting Advisory Council (BAC) meant to hear complaints and advise central government on violations of the programme code and the advertising code. It will be made up of government’s own appointees. It is doubtful that this apex body will exercise any independent scrutiny or judgement. The bill says that the central government can regulate or prohibit transmission of any programme if considered to be not in conformity with the two codes. Details of these codes are unclear at present. Unsurprisingly, the whole exercise is directed only at straitjacketing content while remaining completely silent on concentration of media ownership in corporate hands that is one of the biggest threats to freedom of expression and diversity of opinions.

As happened with other legislations, it is likely that the comments sent by experts, stake holders and the people at large to this draft bill will be ignored by the government and the bill will be pushed through to become law. It is also likely that its constitutional validity will be challenged in courts leading to its restriction or even scrapping. The Modi government would do well to heed the opinions of experts and common consumers and, indeed, stand by constitutional principles, and withdraw the bill. It needs to accept that diversity of opinion and ideas is essential for a democracy. However, the ruling BJP and its government led by Modi appear to be worried that dissenting voices and diverse opinions may erode its hold over political power especially with general elections only a few months away. That is why it is bent upon bringing in such laws as the Broadcasting Services Bill. Even using existing laws, the government has created a fear psychosis among independent media outlets and content creators, putting many journalists behind bars, filing false cases and preventing publication or ‘broadcasting’ of their content which questioned the government’s policies. The ruling party and its associated fraternal organisations of the Sangh Parivar are used as street fighters or trolls to drum up so-called protests against voices that speak truth. Seen in the context of all these shenanigans, the Broadcast Bill is nothing but a crude attempt to silence protest and dissent. This must be fought back by all democratic forces if democracy is to be safeguarded in India.

(January 24, 2023)