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Snip Here, Snip There
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 Act is still cast in an archaic language. Why is a magistrate being given powers to regulate the press?”
The first, self-regulation—a pet theme of the minister who kept assuring one and all that the media should find ways to regulate itself in a democracy—has been given a new spin. Soni said she was taking the proposal for self-regulation for a final cabinet approval. Why the cabinet? A self-regulatory code with the blessings of the state seems a contradiction and a futile exercise to engage in. And the composition of a watchdog to preside over disputes regarding content—with its fair sprinkling of members from the various rights commissions set up by the government and representatives of the industry—raises the spectre of government control. Several questions about whether the exercise would also mean amending the cable act—which empowers state and district administration officials to control content in the event of an emergency or otherwise—went unanswered following the minister’s announcement.
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.
“This appears to be one more way of the state exercising control over the press. It’s never happened....”
The ministry shot back by saying the bill had the approval of the industry as the exercise to amend it had been in the works since 2005. As no official from the Registrar for Newspapers of India (RNI) was willing to comment, there is only an official release from the ministry to go by, saying “representation and comments were received” from the INS and that a “meeting was held with the representatives of INS in September 2005 to discuss the draft amendments”.
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 I&B ministry’s stand that the Press Council had approved the recommendations does not wash with the INS.
The proposed bill, incidentally, replaces the word newspaper with publication to include a larger stable of all sorts of publications, even facsimile editions and Indian editions of foreign periodicals. Also, a clause that has irked many is getting state-appointed auditors to vet the annual returns of publications for allotment of government advertisements. Hitherto the exercise was carried out by the publications themselves and submitted to the RNI. Empanelled auditors have raised more fears of manipulation now.
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.