Eyes popped open when the Chief Justice of India (CJI) pulled up the government twice, on October 8 and November 17, for its faulty affidavits in the Tablighi Jamaat case. The court was visibly annoyed that the government was not responding clearly about its steps to control communally provocative media. Television viewers saw how viciously the Tablighi’s congregation in Nizamuddin in March was held responsible for spreading the coronavirus everywhere.
The information and broadcasting ministry pronounced, with an unbelievably poker face, that “there were no instances of bad reporting” warranting its action. The regime that has detained and prosecuted countless media persons and dissenters then brazenly asserted that it did not believe in “muzzling, stifling and choking of free speech as guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution”.
It appears from media reports that even when the CJI wanted to know, repeatedly, about the government’s role, no one pointed out that the ministry actually watches and records all important TV programmes through its EMMC—the electronic media monitoring centre. These clips can easily reveal whether some channels went overboard to demonise one community.
When the CJI wanted to know, more than once, whether the ministry was legitimately equipped to govern this area, he was instantly assured that all is well. There are, of course, those who doubt whether the existing legislation, the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995, can cover satellite and other transmission, even though governments have gone on extending powers through patchwork amendments. Even the latest amendments proposed in January continue with more plastic surgery, but we surely need additional clarity on whether non-cable TV can really be regulated by this Act.
After all, non-cable satellite television actually reaches more homes—10.6 crore, while cable TV connects 9 crore. All we need to do is to add the 6.8 crore homes covered by private satellite DTH (direct to home) operators and Doordarshan Freedish’s estimate of reaching another 3.8 crore. Once we get deeper, we note that the information and broadcasting ministry’s vast powers arise from just two entries in ‘the Union list’ of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution.
‘Entry number 31’ mentions “broadcasting and other like forms of communication” and ‘Entry 60’ states that it can “sanction cinematograph films for exhibition”. Whether these two phrases empower governments to create such a gigantic architecture of laws, rules, orders and controls can only be decided when they are challenged. But powers are not for selective use. Sections 19 and 20 enjoin action against those broadcasts that violate the ‘Programme Code’ given in the Act, by “attacking religions or communities or (carry) visuals or words contemptuous of religious groups or ... promote communal attitudes”.
This crystal clarity invites punishment under Section 16—“up to two years of imprisonment”, which can go till five years for repeated violation of the Code. If even a warning was issued then, the toxic volcano could have been capped instantly. The same ministry that temporarily banned Asianet News and Media One TV in March for being ‘partial to one community’ in covering the Delhi riots failed to note the hysteria whipped up by some other channels on the Tablighi Jamaat the very same month. Except for a clarificatory amendment, it may be prudent not to further arm a regime with fresh legislation as new weapons would be hurled at some channels.
Newspaper reports indicate that, on the mention by the Solicitor General, the court desired that the industry-run NBSA (News Broadcasters’ Standards Authority) and the Press Council first examine Tablighi’s complaints. No one perhaps informed it that those channels that denounced an entire community are no more ‘under’ the NBSA’s jurisdiction, as they were uncomfortable with its attitude. They set up a parallel body, the National Broadcasters’ Federation (NBF), with Arnab Goswami as the president. It is clear that self-regulation by broadcasters has been systematically stymied by the ministry that had refused to give the NBSA under its iconic chairperson, Justice J S Verma, the same status as the advertising standards council.
That would have authorised the NBSA to judiciously examine complaints against all channels. It is beyond doubt that self-regulation with checks is always superior to overbearing bureaucracies and wily politicians. But megalomaniac regimes need to play the proverbial crafty monkey to gain from two quarrelling cats. The ministry is, anyway, hell- bent on more powers to control OTT (over the top) digital media, as ‘streaming services’ like Hotstar, Amazon Prime and Netflix are racing way ahead of DTH. On November 10, just before the next hearing, the government quietly amended the ‘allocation of business’ rules that govern the critical ‘discs’ in the spinal cord of governance.
A legislation will surely be readied and zipped through Parliament, as done nowadays. Armed with new powers, drawn practically out of thin air, the regime may soon decide what movies can be streamed on TV. More dangerously, it can clamp down even on digital or online news. Only the Supreme Court can now restrict an elected autocracy from crushing all democratic dissent. Dispensations that thrive on oratory and control can ensure their permanence once virulent television channels, hyena-like trolls and hysterical zealots monopolise the entire mindscape of voters.
Jawhar Sircar (Tweets @jawharsircar)
Retired civil servant. Former Culture Secretary and ex-CEO, Prasar Bharati