Analysing the Broadcast Services Bill: A Blueprint for Censorship

The draft bill's language, while attempting to define the scope of its regulation, employs ambiguous terminology that creates a considerable grey area.

Srajan Girdonia
New Update
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The proposed Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 (Broadcast Bill) by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) has sparked significant concerns, being viewed as a charter for censorship. This 72-page bill, in stark contrast to the nine-page Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995, has raised alarms about its potential impact on free speech and expression.

The Ambiguity in the Language

The draft bill's language, while attempting to define the scope of its regulation, employs ambiguous terminology that creates a considerable grey area. For instance, in defining the term "programme," the document refers to "any audio, visual or audio-visual content, sign, signals, writing, images which are transmitted using a broadcasting network." The inclusion of terms like "writing" without specific delineation opens the door to interpretation. The use of broad terms such as "writing" without explicit clarification regarding its application to digital text content published on websites introduces uncertainty. It fails to distinctly define the boundaries of what constitutes regulated "writing" in the digital realm. 

Furthermore, the term "broadcasting network" is broadly defined without precise constraints regarding its digital scope. In an era where the internet serves as a primary medium for content dissemination, the ambiguity surrounding what constitutes a "broadcasting network" in the digital landscape remains a significant concern.

Additionally, the bill's reference to "any content published via YouTube or any website" lacks explicit parameters regarding the nature and extent of control over such platforms. The lack of specificity poses a risk of regulatory overreach, allowing for the interpretation of the bill's provisions in ways that could impinge upon free speech and expression online.

News and OTT Convergence

One of the most contentious aspects is the amalgamation of news with OTT content under a certification norm. This move, likening the treatment of news to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) designed for cinema, has sparked widespread apprehension and criticism within the journalism community.

Esteemed figures, including former Prasar Bharti CEO Jawhar Sircar, have expressed deep reservations about this amalgamation. Sircar notably described this grouping of news with OTT content as a "combo-pack" reminiscent of cinematic certification norms. He highlights that such a move signifies the unprecedented subjecting of news, known for its immediacy and role in democratic societies, to a pre-censorship framework akin to that applied to entertainment content like movies.

Leading voices in journalism have underscored that this convergence marks a pivotal moment where the foundational principles of a free press are at stake. They argue that subjecting news content to a certification regime introduces a blueprint for pre-censorship, directly impacting the freedom of the press. Journalists, media professionals, and advocates of free speech fear that this alignment of news with entertainment certification norms could impede the press's ability to report independently and without undue restrictions. 

Three-Tier Structure: Centralized Government Control

The draft Broadcast Bill proposes a hierarchical three-tier structure that places substantial decision-making power in the hands of the central government, prompting concerns about its constitutional implications and the absence of widespread public input.

Self-Regulation by Broadcasters and Operators: The initial tier of the proposed structure emphasizes self-regulation by individual broadcasters and broadcasting network operators. While seemingly empowering these entities to manage their content, the bill mandates the establishment of a grievance redressal cell within each broadcaster/operator. However, the bill requires these entities to adhere to guidelines and codes set by the government, ultimately aligning their decisions with governmental directives.

Self-Regulatory Organizations (SROs): A subsequent tier introduces the concept of self-regulatory organizations (SROs) to oversee compliance and address grievances not resolved by individual broadcasters. These SROs are expected to issue guidelines and ensure alignment with government-mandated codes, essentially functioning as extensions of the government's regulatory framework.

Broadcast Advisory Council (BAC): The apex tier, the Broadcast Advisory Council (BAC), further consolidates governmental influence. The BAC comprises government-appointed individuals, including ex officio officers representing various ministries alongside "eminent independent persons," all appointed by the central government. This composition raises concerns about the council's independence, given its substantial representation from government bodies.

The decision-making authority vested in the BAC, which hears complaints regarding code violations and appeals from SRO decisions, ultimately feeds back into the central government. The BAC's recommendations are directed to the central government, which retains the power to inspect, intercept, monitor, and seize broadcasting equipment—a provision that consolidates significant control within the government's purview.

Device Confiscation and Unchecked Power

The draft Broadcast Bill introduces alarming provisions regarding the confiscation of devices belonging to journalists and researchers, outlining measures for handling equipment held by broadcasters and operators. This move has sparked widespread concerns about press freedom violations, drawing parallels to past instances of censorship in India.

Recent incidents highlight the government's increasing tendency towards device confiscation. These actions often occur without proper legal support or court warrants, creating an environment of impunity.

The gravity of this issue has prompted intervention from the judiciary. The Supreme Court, in response to petitions and advocacy by academics and media advocacy groups, directed the Union government to consider guidelines proposed for regulating the search and seizure of electronic devices. These clauses within the Broadcast Bill, coupled with the real-world instances of arbitrary device confiscation, cast a shadow on press freedom in India.

Monopolizing the Digital Landscape

The draft Broadcast Bill reflects the government's proactive stance toward regulating the digital sphere, indicating a broader agenda aimed at overseeing the digital narrative, notably as the 2024 elections loom closer. This aligns with a larger strategy to influence and manage online content, shaping public opinion through digital platforms.

A notable trend supporting this assertion is the discernible escalation in government expenditure on digital platforms. Reports from reputable sources, such as The Morning Context, have documented a substantial surge in the government's financial allocation to digital initiatives. For instance, the Digital Corporation of India, under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, received significantly increased grants over recent years, emphasizing the administration's heightened interest and investment in digital mediums.

Moreover, the alignment of the Broadcast Bill's provisions with the government's broader digital agenda indicates a systematic approach to extending control over online narratives. This confluence of legislative measures and increased financial allocation to digital initiatives underscores the significance the government places on shaping public opinion through digital channels.

The correlation between legislative initiatives, financial allocations, and high-level messaging regarding digital platforms offers a compelling narrative of the government's strategic intent to regulate and influence the digital sphere, potentially impacting the forthcoming electoral landscape.

The implications of the proposed Broadcast Bill underline the critical necessity for transparency and precision in legislative drafting. The far-reaching impact of this bill on press freedom, digital autonomy, and public discourse accentuates the need for clear and specific language in legislative documents. Ambiguities within the bill raise justified concerns about overreach, potential censorship, and infringement on fundamental freedoms.

To safeguard democratic principles and ensure the integrity of regulatory frameworks, transparency in language is paramount. Concrete definitions and unambiguous delineations of regulatory scope are essential to prevent misinterpretation and arbitrary enforcement. The drafting of bills, particularly those affecting fundamental rights and media freedoms, must uphold clarity and precision to uphold democratic values and protect citizens' rights.