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Ministry presses for media self-sponsorship

New Delhi, Feb. 17: Major broadcasters are actively circulating a draft content regulation code to influence government policy on control over what will be beamed on television but the ministry of information and broadcasting under Ravi Shankar Prasad is taking a tough line and pressing for more.

In effect, the ministry is asking the media industry, chiefly television news channels, to have a structured self-censorship body in place.

The Indian Broadcasting Foundation has proposed the formation of the Indian Broadcasting Standards Council (IBSC) as an industry watchdog on television content. The draft report of the IBSC and the draft programme code have been forwarded to the ministry but the Centre and Prasad feel that they are not enough.

The ministry is considering two options on monitoring television, especially television news content. The first is the creation of a committee comprising professionals and government nominees that will have recommending authority. The second is the creation of a Broadcast Regulatory Authority, a bill on which is likely to be moved in Parliament shortly.

Broadcasters and media industry leaders are already wary of what the government may have in store. One view is that the government should not seek to regulate content separately when the Convergence Bill is already being considered. Planning Commission member-secretary N.K. Singh said today that the government was studying the proposals of the standing committee of Parliament to which the bill has been referred “and it is likely to make up its decision within a month or two an introducing a revised Convergence Bill.”

Kiran Karnik, who used to head Discovery Channel, and now heads Nasscom, said the proposal to take steps on content regulation is an indication that the Convergence Bill has been put on the backburner. “This is a dangerous thing at a time when you can get carried away by jingoism and any criticism can be labelled pseudo-secular. The point is that the Convergence Bill was already dealing with content regulation in a structured fashion and any other move will just mean something entirely different,” he said.

The ministry’s pressure on industry is actually being interepreted as a demand from the Centre to broadcasters that they indulge in self-censorship. Even this morning, Ravi Shankar Prasad, told a gathering of lawyers that media was going beyond its brief and often posed a threat to national security.

He cited the instance of the militant attack on the Akshardham Temple in Gandhinagar last year. “It was reported during the live coverage on television that the government is planning to send NSG commandoes. Is it not possible that the terrorists inside the temple were being informed by their patrons outside that the commandoes were moving in'”

Since the coverage of the pogrom in Gujarat last year, the government has been concerned over the impact of live television news coverage. It has taken a little less than a year since the Godhra massacre for the government to articulate its demand.

The draft report of the IBF’s sub-committee on content regulation is being interpreted as “too soft and wishy washy”. The report says that IBF members — nearly all major broadcasters are IBF members — will not air programmes showing explicit sex and violence and content that could impact on children should be scheduled after 10 at night. Such content should also carry warnings. IBF members have been asked to exercise their own discretion on cinematic content even after the film certification board has labelled them ‘A’ (for adults), ‘U’ or ‘U/A’.

On news coverage, in the section titled “Reporting in times of national emergency and military action”, the draft suggests: “In times of emergency or when military action is underway, journalism may be constrained by questions of national security. Matters involving risk to and loss of lives need handling with the utmost sensitivity to national mood and feeling eg. religious violence in Gujarat and (militant attack) in Kaluchak. All views should be reflected in due proportion to mirror the depth and spread of opinion in the country.”

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