For media, ‘statutory, mandatory self-regulation’ emerging as consensus model

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tewariNew Delhi August 6;Even as differences persist on its nature and composition, key stakeholders involved in the Indian media landscape appear to be converging towards a ‘statutory, mandatory self-regulation’ mechanism. Such a body would be ‘independent and autonomous’, with legal sanction. Its mandate would extend to all media entities, and it would have the ‘power to punish’.

This was a tentative consensus at an event in the capital on Tuesday where Minister of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Manish Tewari, and heads of three regulatory institutions – Justice Markandey Katju of the Press Council of India (PCI), Justice A P Shah of the Broadcasting Content Complaint Council (BCCC), and Justice R V Raveendran of the News Broadcasting Standards Association (NBSA) – spoke on regulation.

All speakers emphasised the importance of media freedom. Mr Tewari recounted that PM Manmohan Singh had told him that the government’s relationship with the media must be an ‘essay in persuasion, not regulation’. Justice Katju said he had been the ‘greatest fighter for media freedom in this country’.

But freedom came with caveats, with speakers pointing to Article 19 (2) of the constitution, which stipulated that freedom of expression was subject to reasonable restrictions. The question, the heads of PCI, BCCC and NBSA said, was not whether there should be regulation or not, but the form of regulation.

‘Statutory, mandatory, and powerful’

While all chiefs spoke out against external government intervention, they argued in favour of more powerful regulatory mechanisms.

BCCC has received 10,983 complaints till date, and addressed 1263 ‘specific complaints’. Justice Shah said that a High Court judgment had opened up the room for BCCC to look into a complaint regarding channels which were not members of the industry body. He suggested a ‘statutory creation of a self-regulatory body, with appointments made by an independent mechanism’ as a viable model. “There must also be an appellate forum for grievances.”

NBSA chair, Justice Raveendran, expressed his concern about the government’s tendency to convert any regulation into control, and said, “Existing mechanisms can be made more effective.” This needed ‘co-operation from I&B Ministry’ where broadcasters could be given license on the on the condition of becoming a member of trade body. Self regulatory body could also be awarded powers to impose higher fines or recommend license cancellation.

While emphasising that he was against any government control, Justice Katju said an independent statutory regulatory body with ‘power to punish’ was essential. In a bid to assure the media, he added that such a body could have ’90 percent’ media representatives. “In the PCI too, 20 out of the 28 members in the PCI too are media representatives. This would be a review by peers. Why are you afraid of yourself? ” But other two regulatory body chiefs said there must be independent personalities, as media-dominated body would carry little credibility.

One such model, which could be emulated according to the speakers, is the Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI). Through an amendment in the Cable TV Network Act, ASCI was granted legal powers regarding ad content in the broadcasting space. Its Consumer Complaints Council – with 14 members, including eight from civil society and six from the industry – can tell a channel to modify or withdraw an ad, and in case a channel does not obey, the I&B Ministry can take stringent action.

‘Can give licensing power’

While reiterating that any move towards regulation would be industry-driven, and not come from the government, Mr Tewari however flagged off a key concern. “Who do we give statutory powers to? What if the industry body splits tomorrow? Where will it leave the self-regulatory authority? This needs to be thought through.”

In order to allay fears about state control, Mr Tewari added that his personal view was that such a self regulatory body could also be made the ‘licensor authority’, a power vested in his ministry till now. “It has to be a credible authority with independent individuals. The media cannot check its own homework. A regulatory process cannot have an opt-in and opt-out provision, and must be mandatory. Presuming such a structure comes into place, it can be given licensing functions.”

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