• Saturday, December 20, 2014

Freedom in the air

PLEASURE IS ALL MINE

A policy or fallacy?

Shah Husain Imam

THE new broadcasting policy's contents and preliminary reactions thereto have been gushing forth in the public domain, much too in circulation that is, to bear a repetition. Considering this, I would like to confine myself mainly to a rebuttal of some claims made by the government in favour of unfurling the flag, as it were, of a precipitate policy document on broadcasting media. I will also attempt a brief comparative analysis between our script of the policy and the policies that prevail in India, Great Britain and the USA.

In the first place, the government's claim that the policy is crafted with an eye to 'flourishing' the electronic media and that it is citizen-friendly and drawn out in public interest sounds like empty platitudes when the overall restrictive nature of it dawns on us. In the second, the claim that other countries too have similar broadcasting policies has to be taken with a grain of salt because each important country is propelled by its media culture to be reflecting the degree of press freedom it practises.

The new media policy on broadcasting in India, 2011 is described to be largely a 'force of good.' Vanita Kohli-Khandekar elaborates in an article in Business Standard, dated October 18, 2011 thus: “ 'You will be slapped on the hand five times. This is your warning. After that you will be thrown out.' That, in essence, is what one of the many changes made to the policy for broadcasting television channels in India last week, says. Most of the changes -- such as increasing the net worth for new entrants and prolonging the licence period -- are positive. They will, with any luck, help nurture the news broadcast industry back to financial health. They will also bring some sanity to the Rs. 32,000 crore, hyper-competitive, Indian television business.”

Unsurprisingly, it is the 'five slaps' clause that has got all the attention. For 'it links the renewal of a broadcaster's licence to his having committed five or more violations of programming and advertising code.'

But a detractor saw no need for this. Argues Lulla, “Every one of the 650 odd channels in India are subject to the Cable Television Network Act of 1995 and to the uplinking and downlinking policy of 2005. Both state unequivocally that any violation of the programming code could result in shut down or suspension of a channel.”

That is exactly the point. While issuing licences to various television and radio channels some stringent conditions are attached, and the information minister too admitted that the present broadcasting policy has been further developed around the licencing provisions. With the conditions laid out for licencing and the new policy, a deadweight befalls the electronic media. Actually, the renewal of licence button is there for pressing, why then dish out further restrictions?

There are laws in our country to tackle many of the offences detailed in the new policy.

Now turn to Great Britain, the BBC is a British public service organisation. It is headed by Executive Board which has overall control of the BBC television. The editorial guidelines are the BBC's own values and standards.

The Leveson inquiry instituted in the wake of phone hacking scandal in Britain recommended, among others, that (a) Newspapers should continue to be self-regulated -- and the government should have no power over what they publish; (b) There had to be a new press standards body created by the industry with a new code of conduct ...

In the USA, the First Amendment, as well as Section 326 of the Communications Act, prohibits the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington from censoring broadcast material and from interfering with freedom of expression in broadcasting.

William Pitt the Younger in a House of Common speech as early as in 1783 had said: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”

Why must a governemnt which claims to be democratic turn illiberal in its approach to media?

It is a bloated and unfocussed policy. Almost anything under the sun has been put on the list of don'ts for the television and radio broadcasters. As if there was a grudging sense of loss of power at the way the authority and personnel of the electronic media were going 'scot-free' despite having committed 'culpable' offences in their eyes.

One commentator who was called up to give his input at an earlier stage, suggested that the committee assigned to formulate the draft was not unanimous on the final shape of the document. It may have been adopted by a majority decision with the dissent brushed aside. Yet, the question remains, what was the hurry to present it before the Cabinet for its approval when there were some dissenting voices? It now comes from the top as an imposition. It has short-circuited the process missing out on important stakeholders' inputs. Instead, politically willed insertions were made, thanks to the mandarins.

Pending the formation of a statutory independent commission to implement the provisions, some of which are perniciously vague to invite arbitrary interpretations, it is the information ministry which shall put the policy in effect. Given the magnitude of the points at issue one wonders whether, caught up in a control rage, a craze for diversionary controversies, and a sense of megalomania, if you like, the government is set to implement the provisions without having the required infrastructure in place. This leaves a scope for reprisal against a media house 'crossing the line.' Given the wide gamut of offences consisting of those relating to armed forces, law enforcement agencies, officials with juridical powers like DCs who are being virtually 'indemnified,' there is no knowing from which authority a stick will be wielded against a particular programme or programmer.

Ending with Thomas Jefferson's famous words: “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”

The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.  
E-mail: husain.imam@thedailystar.net

Published: 12:00 am Friday, August 08, 2014

TAGS: broadcasting policy National Broadcast Policy 2014

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