The Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, unveiled by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) in November, represents one in a series of efforts aimed at comprehensively regulating broadcasting.
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Highlight the provisions of The Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 and justify how it presents an opportunity to protect press freedom and diversity. (15 marks, 250 words).
Evolution of Regulation in Broadcasting:
- The most recent attempt prior to this was in 2007 with the Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill.
- A decade earlier, in 1997, during the nascent stages of cable and satellite broadcasting, the Broadcasting Bill laid the groundwork for envisioning an integrated regulatory framework for the sector.
- The latest iteration of the Broadcasting Bill follows the release of a pre-consultation paper on ‘National Broadcasting Policy’ by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), initiated in response to a directive from the MIB.
Provisions in the Bill:
- Firstly, it mandates broadcasting network operators and broadcasters to maintain subscriber data records, subject to periodic external audits—a practice aligned with international norms.
- Secondly, the Bill aims to establish a methodology for audience measurement and the sale of ratings data, introducing much-needed transparency to the opaque value chain of cable and satellite television in our country.
- Thirdly, the provision allowing private actors in terrestrial broadcasting is seen as fostering competition against Doordarshan, the state broadcaster, a trend observed in many G-20 countries.
Concerns with the Bill:
- A significant apprehension is the inclusion of Over-the-Top (OTT) content suppliers in the definition of broadcasting services, a proposal also found in TRAI’s ‘National Broadcasting Policy.’
- The Bill’s broadened definition of broadcasting narrows the circumstances under which journalists and news outlets not affiliated with large, multilingual television networks can pursue their professional activities.
- While oversight for a news outlet can be beneficial, the requirement for a ‘Content Evaluation Committee‘ raises questions, as it mandates an internal body to self-certify news programming. The concern extends beyond feasibility and costs to desirability.
- Given that the role of an internal oversight mechanism is to ensure news accuracy and journalistic quality, its design is better entrusted to individual news outlets.
- They should have the autonomy to choose whether to model it after an ombudsperson, as some newspapers have attempted in the past, or adopt a ‘Readers’ Editor‘ approach, as practiced by a few online news outlets.
- Similar to the TRAI paper, it remains silent on issues of ownership. Although the Bill is eager to establish a methodology for audience measurement, it lacks the inclination to gauge the extent of cross-media and vertical ownership. Both forms of media power undermine the diversity of suppliers and, consequently, the variety of perspectives in the news marketplace.
- Moreover, the Bill remains silent on creating an independent broadcast regulator, as suggested in TRAI’s paper. Instead, this Bill proposes a ‘Broadcast Advisory Council’ to examine viewers’ grievances and violations of the Programme Code and Advertisement Code.
- This raises two concerns: firstly, the Council’s capacity to effectively track and address grievances, whether genuine or motivated, raised by over 800 million TV viewers; and secondly, the lack of autonomy granted to this body, as the Bill empowers the Central government to ultimately decide on the Council’s advice.
- The Bill grants the government the authority to inspect broadcasters without prior notification and to seize their equipment, potentially including those issued to their employees.
- Furthermore, violations of the Programme Code and Advertisement Code can result in the deletion or modification of content, alongside existing measures such as suspending transmissions for specific durations.
- Lastly, the Bill provides extensive discretion to the government to restrict broadcasting and its distribution in the “public interest,” a term left distressingly undefined.
- These intrusive mechanisms heighten the vulnerabilities of professional news suppliers to external pressure groups. Those deliberating on legislating the Bill, regardless of their parliamentary benches, should be concerned about these aspects.
As the latest step in the ongoing efforts to establish an integrated regulatory framework for broadcasting, this Bill should not miss the chance to safeguard press freedom and diversity. To achieve this, it needs to address significant omissions, reconsider intrusive provisions, and refine potentially positive elements.