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Regulation of Online News

The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) is concerned about the order issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, on 4 April 2018, directing that a committee be constituted for framing regulations for online media/news portals and online content.

The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) is concerned about the order issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, on 4 April 2018, directing that a committee be constituted for framing regulations for online media/news portals and online content.

The committee’s mandate to “delineate the sphere of online information dissemination which needs to be brought under regulation, on the lines applicable to print and electronic media” is deeply problematic, given that successive governments have not had either the inclination or capacity to regulate cross-media ownership or the entrenchment of political and corporate interests. The consolidation of media ownership in the hands of a few powerful media corporations has limited the power and media access of smaller publications and channels that have an alternate point of view. 

It is the internet that has opened up space for marginalised and/or dissenting voices. There are online news portals working with crowdsourced resources, others that are registered as not-for-profit (Section 25) companies, and yet others that function as trusts. The barriers to entry into the news space have been significantly lowered thanks to the digital space.

It is with online media, more than with the legacy media of print and television, that the state has repeatedly used arrests, prosecution and intimidation tactics under the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000.  In fact, online media content is subject to more surveillance than legacy media, and this is already a gross violation of the right to free speech. The need of the hour is to strengthen a journalist’s right to report freely and fearlessly, especially because the online medium is also a space where troll armies employed by political parties threaten, intimidate and are involved in spreading false information.

Under the circumstances, the first term of reference (ToR) to control the “sphere of dissemination” seems akin to pre-censorship. Content may be governed by a professional code, but the government has no jurisdiction to prevent dissemination of news through online portals. That would be a direct violation of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. 

The second ToR states that the committee is

to recommend appropriate policy formulation for online media/news portals and online content platforms, including digital broadcasting, which encompasses entertainment/infotainment and news/media aggregators, keeping in mind the extant FDI [foreign direct investment] norms, Programme and Advertising Code for TV channels, norms circulated by PCI, the code of ethics framed by NBA and norms prescribed by IBF.

Since so many content codes (albeit imperfect and in need of revision) already exist, and the IT Act itself is in force, we fail to see what “policy formulation” the committee is supposed to reinvent.

The third ToR for the committee is to study the existing regulatory mechanisms across the world with a view to incorporating best practices. Without the involvement of stakeholders in the media industry such as working journalists, editors and their genuinely representative bodies, and members of the public, no decision on best practices can be taken by a state-sponsored committee with an over-representation of bureaucrats.

The fact that the media industry, like any other, needs to be regulated is beyond dispute. However, such regulation is acceptable only from an independent regulator, which is free from both the state and the market, and which is vested with the power to encourage the media to adhere to professional codes devised by peers, and to enforce such codes if and when necessary; not from another committee under the thumb of the government. The NWMI calls for the plan to set up the proposed committee to be abandoned immediately.

The NWMI also appeals to the Press Council of India, the News Broadcasters’ Association and the Indian Broadcasters’ Federation not to participate in this dubious exercise but, instead, to initiate and encourage a public debate on the complex issue of media regulation, keeping the need to serve the public and public interest at the top of the agenda of any such regulation.

Network of Women in Media, India

Updated On : 13th Apr, 2018

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