The information and broadcasting ministry hasn’t been in the news recently save for those periodic announcements on regulating television content and, predictably, channels being pulled up for violating “the code”. But 2011 seems all set for new controversies, what with minister Ambika Soni putting out two communiques that took the media industry by surprise.
The second decision was approved last fortnight. This was the 1867 Press and Registration of Books and Publications Act, amended in 2010 and now approved by the cabinet. Now, recasting an over-a-century-old law has to be done with care and sensitivity. That it has provoked even the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) to dub the amendments as draconian says a lot about the widespread dismay this has induced. The INS, which represents over 990 dailies as well as magazines, periodicals and other such in 18 languages from all over the country, has in no uncertain terms said that this would lead to severely curbing the freedom of the press.
Some key amendments that have upset the industry include:
Particularly draconian were provisions like the clause relating to the suspension of an errant publication for 30 days. “This is a threat to the right to freedom of speech,” says INS president and editor-in-chief of the Janmabhoomi group, Kundan Vyas. The media fraternity is particularly peeved that what started as an effort towards transparent self-regulation ended up with the government wielding more powers.
There is also the fact that the act does not keep pace with developments in technology. “It continues to be cast in a language that is archaic in that it hauls up the printer for violation of the act. Also, I do not see why the magistrate should be given the power to regulate the press. And lastly, the entire provision barring the registration of titles similar to foreign ones is absurd,” says Shanth Kumar, director of Deccan Herald.
I&B officials say that discussions were held in a transparent manner and a draft proposal was put on the ministry’s website inviting suggestions from the industry on February 19 last year. The stakeholders were asked to submit their comments in 20 days to the office of the RNI. According to ministry officials, the final cabinet note had factored in even recommendations which came after the cutoff date.
The INS though points out that the ministry erred in sending the recommendations to the Press Council even as the term of the members was coming to an end in January 2010. The ministry’s stand that the council had approved it does not wash, with the INS shooting back by stating that the members were on their last sitting. As Vyas puts it, “This appears to be one more way of government exercising control over the press. It’s never happened before.”
The draft bill also contains other subtle measures to undercut the press. Now the penalty clause under the new Sections 12 and 13 have been removed by knocking off the six-month imprisonment in the existing act and substituting it with a suspension of publication for a period of 30 days. This would act as a deterrent to non-serious publications, the official note says.
Among all this, doubts still remain over the actual intent of the government. Perhaps why many members suggest a completely new bill—one that factors in the changes that have taken place in the last 100 years—and one that will clearly betray no signs of a Victorian hangover in language or intent.
Apropos of Pencil it in Red (Mar 7), not many would know that there is a limit of 12 minutes of advertising per one hour of television programming. It is flouted by each and every channel, and is perhaps the most audacious scandal that has been going on for some time. Likewise, there is no limit on the volume of advertisements appearing in the Hindustan Times, ToI or Outlook. If the advertisements exceed 50 per cent of the content, do these publications still qualify as newspapers or newsmagazines?
The law already seems to be in force, with a complete wipeout of the swabhiman rally in Delhi which had speakers like Ram Jethmalani, Kiran Bedi, Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev. Looks like the entire media is on the Congress payroll.
Ramkrishnan, New Jersey
Considering that the media is the handmaiden of various corporate houses and publishes paid news at worst and biased news at best, its own credibility is at an all-time low. It can’t pretend to be a shining beacon and also be in collusion with the powers-that-be.
I don’t understand why the media thinks this bill will curb their freedom. Most mainstream newspapers and magazines in India publish what is handed down to them by district magistrates and superintendents of police. Indian publications rarely challenge the official line or bother to investigate. The best examples would be the reporting of the Aarushi murder case and the recent Godhra verdict issued by a court in Ahmedabad. The Indian media must learn a lesson or two from their neighbour, Pakistan, where the media is not only vibrant but has the courage to challenge (and report against) institutions like the isi, army and even the Muslim fundamentalists. In India, however, a crime reporter feels delighted if he gets a couple of quotes from a police officer (and never bothers to check the authenticity of this ‘exclusive’ information). The proposed law is unlikely to curb free speech as the Indian media is already gagged by vested interests, lacks the will (and in some cases resources) to investigate issues or challenge the official line.
Bobby Naqvi, Dubai
How can the state have a role in a self-regulatory code? It will make citizens slaves of the bureaucracy indirectly. Give the government more powers, and you widen the scope of corruption. On the one hand, the government talks of liberalisation for business and industry; on the other, it advocates going back to the inspector raj with the proposed amendments in the media regulation bill.
Deendayal M. Lulla, Mumbai
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Not many would know that there is limit of 12 min. of advertisemnt per hour of TV progrogramme. Not with standing the fact it is being flouted every day by every indian TV channel, and perhaps it is one of the most audacious scandal that is going on for long time, why cannot there be limit on volume of advertisements in newspapers like TOI, HT etc and magzines like Outlook??? If volume of advertisement in exceeds by 50%, do these periodicals continue to be called as news papers???
The last comment speaks volumes about the editorial policy of our media.!Press Council of India has issued "code of conduct to media longback! It has laid down distinction between "news" and "Views" have to be maintained scrupulously!many times unprimtable words get passed as comments in blogs. So asuthorities concern must exercise proper care and comtrol.
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