NWMI raises concern over proposed regulation of online news

The NWMI is concerned about the order issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, on 4 April 2018 constituting a committee for framing regulations for online media/news portals and online content. We beleive that without the involvement of stakeholders in the media industry, such as working journalists, editors and their genuinely representative bodies, and members of the public, no decision on best practices can be taken by a state sponsored committee with an over-representation of bureaucrats.
The Network of Women in Media India (NWMI) is concerned about the order issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, on 4 April 2018 constituting a committee for framing regulations for online media/news portals and online content. The justification for the order is that there are content codes for print and electronic media and there are also autonomous regulatory bodies like the Press Council of India (PCI) to regulate print media, whereas the online media websites and news portals, including digital broadcasting like entertainment/infotainment and news/media aggregators, do not have either.

The proposed committee comprises six bureaucrats from various government ministries and one representative each from the PCI, the News Broadcasters’ Association (NBA) and the Indian Broadcasters’ Federation (IBF).

The committee’s mandate to “delineate the sphere of online information dissemination which needs to be brought under regulation, on the lines applicable to print and electronic media” is deeply problematic, given that successive governments have not had either the inclination or capacity to regulate cross-media ownership in print and electronic media or the entrenchment of political and corporate interests in the media, including news media. The consolidation of media ownership in the hands of a few powerful media corporations has limited the power and media access of smaller publications and channels that have an alternate point of view.

It is the Internet that has opened up space for marginalised and/or dissenting voices. There are online news portals working with crowd-sourced resources, others that have registered as not-for-profit (Section 25) companies, and yet others that function as trusts. Interesting modes of collaboration have emerged in the interest of serving the larger public interest. The barriers to entry into the news space have been significantly lowered thanks to the digital space.

It is with online media, more than the legacy media of print and television, that the state has repeatedly used arrests, prosecution and intimidation of various kinds using the Information Technology Act, 2000.  In fact, online media content is subject to more surveillance than legacy media, and this is already a gross violation of the right to free speech. The need of the hour is to strengthen a journalist’s right to report freely and fearlessly, especially because the online medium is also a space of threat and intimidation by troll armies employed by political parties, who are involved in spreading false information as well.

Under the circumstances, the proposed mandate to control the “sphere of dissemination” seems akin to pre-censorship. Content may be governed by a professional code, but the government has no jurisdiction to prevent dissemination of news through online portals. That would be a direct violation of Article 19(1)a of the Constitution.

The second ToR states that the committee is “to recommend appropriate policy formulation for online media/news portals and online content platforms, including digital broadcasting, which encompasses entertainment/infotainment and news/media aggregators, keeping in mind the extant FDI norms, Programme and Advertising Code for TV channels, norms circulated by PCI, the code of ethics framed by NBA and norms prescribed by IBF.” Since so many content codes (albeit imperfect and in need of revision) already exist, , and the IT Act itself is in force, we fail to see what “policy formulation” the committee is supposed to re-invent.

The third ToR for the committee is to study the existing regulatory mechanisms across the world with a view to incorporating best practices. Without the involvement of stakeholders in the media industry, such as working journalists, editors and their genuinely representative bodies, and members of the public, no decision on best practices can be taken by a state sponsored committee with an over-representation of bureaucrats.

The very idea of the free press in a democracy cannot but be undermined when the state begins to dictate best practices in consultation with the bureaucracy and not based on public interest and Constitutional guarantees of free speech.

The fact that the media industry, like any other, needs to be regulated is beyond dispute.  However, such regulation is acceptable only from an independent regulator which is free from both the state and the market, and which is vested with the power to encourage the media to adhere to professional codes devised by peers, and to enforce such codes if and when necessary – not from another committee under the thumb of the government.

The NWMI is of the opinion that the need of the hour is a free, open, inclusive media environment that supports and protects freedom of expression as a right to be enjoyed by all citizens of a democracy, and that enables the media in all forms – print, broadcast, online, legacy, new, mainstream, alternative – the freedom to serve the information and entertainment needs of people by adhering to the ethical and professional standards set by a community of peers.

The NWMI calls for the plan to set up the proposed committee to be abandoned immediately.

The NWMI also appeals to the PCI, the NBA and the IBF not to participate in this dubious exercise but, instead, to initiate and encourage a public debate on the complex issue of media regulation, keeping the need to serve the public and the public interest at the top of the agenda of any such regulation.

April 7, 2018