The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Convergence cop in cupboard
- Govt shelves bill to form communications commission

New Delhi, Sept. 25: The government today dropped its plan for a supercop over communications and media after a group of ministers from defence, communications, law, finance and information and broadcasting decided “not to pursue it for now”.

This is an unstated rollback of a bill drafted two years ago in the flush of optimism over the infotech industry.

The scuttling of the Communication Convergence Bill, 2001, has always been high on the agenda of information and broadcasting ministers, be it Ravi Shankar Prasad or his predecessor, Sushma Swaraj. The bill threatened to whittle down their powers and render the ministry irrelevant for the broadcasting industry.

The bill proposed to set up a Communications Commission of India (CCI) that would be vested with sweeping and absolute powers making it an omnibus super-regulator that would govern not only the technology of communication but also news, views, opinion and entertainment transmitted over television, radio, Internet and other electronic media. In its unchanged form, the bill could revive a licence raj over communication technology.

“It has been our position that there can be convergence of carriage regulators but not of content regulators. We cannot be part of a common regulator,” an I&B ministry source said. It was proposed that the CCI would comprise two bureaus — one supervising the technology of communication (carriage) and the other monitoring the programmes carried (content).

“It is a pretty draconian piece of legislation because the Government of India and the CCI can come down with a heavy hand on just about anybody since news is a matter of interpretation,” said cyber law expert Pawan Duggal when the bill was tabled in Parliament.

“There is a distinct effort to go in for as much regulation of content as possible. For the first time we are coming across a content censor in the country who cuts across all boundaries of mediums. It is an attempt to over-regulate a fledgling industry. Convergence is not yet a ground reality in this country.”

The I&B ministry is now revisiting an older draft legislation, the Broadcasting Bill, 1997, and the draft proposal for a Broadcasting Authority of India to examine how a regulator can be put in place for the broadcasting sector.

Ministry sources said that since the time the draft bill was placed and amendments suggested, “the realisation has dawned that it is too premature”. Britain passed a similar legislation in July this year after 10 years of separate regulators. Malaysia — on whose model the convergence bill was drafted — has watered down the powers of its convergence body. Australia and Japan also do not have it in place. Only the US — with the Federal Communications Commission — has a comparable body.

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