Move to Muzzle the Media

A ccording to Information and Broadcasting Minister Priyaranjan Das Munshi, the UPA Government is planning to table a Bill in the monsoon session of Parliament to regulate the business and programmes of the fast-expanding electronic media. The draft of the Indian Broadcasting Regulatory Authority Bill is ready. But some provisions of this Bill have created a furore even before it has been tabled. Indications are that the UPA Government is preparing to curb freedom of expression by controlling the television channels. Though the official draft of the proposed Bill is yet to be made public, Das Munshi's statement carries enough of a hint that the Government has made up its mind to impose restrictions on TV channels in the name of ‘regulating' them.

However, it is not easy to control the media. Das Munshi too, knows quite well that such attempts have failed in the past. Be it the CAS, the Cable Act, or the Indian Broadcasting Regulatory Authority Bill tabled in 1997 – the Central Government either failed to get the Bill passed, or could not implement the Act even after it was passed. This only indicates the huge clout that media companies enjoy.

Every country in the world regulates TV channels; the only difference is in the mode of regulation and the regulatory authority. There can be no doubt that regulation in a transparent and democratic manner is the need of the hour in India . But memories of muzzling of the Press during Emergency, naturally give rise to apprehensions about the motives behind any official moves to regulate the media. The way in which the UPA Government has prepared the IBRA Bill has only strengthened such apprehensions.

It is true that there is popular feeling against the way in which TV channels run amok, promoting obscenity, violence, sensationalism, and even superstition for profit. But it seems that the Government wants to use this feeling for its own purposes. What can be the motive behind the attempt to stop sting operations, as the Bill purportedly suggests in the name of regulations? Of course, privacy should be protected from any violation. But can there be any question that sting operations have most often contributed to public interest? Who else but politicians and bureaucrats fear, and therefore seek to ban, such operations?

Similarly, regulation can never mean empowering the political powers-that-be and bureaucrats with unlimited powers to discipline and punish – since such unregulated powers would inevitably be used for suppressing dissent. Likewise, provisions for punitive measures ought not to be kept out of the ambit of judicial probes. Any regulatory mechanism must first and foremost be a democratic one, and its aim must be to improve rather than silence the media. No doubt, it is a thousand times better to have a media full of problems and weaknesses (that can after all be fought out), rather than one which has been muzzled and bullied into docility. So, while underlining the need for regulation, any attempt, direct or indirect, to curb the freedom of the media must be vehemently opposed.

But freedom of the media does not mean freedom of the big media corporations. Why is there so much unease among the corporate media houses about the Bill's Cross Media Holding provisions aimed at regulating media monopoly? The rising trend of monopolisation in the media since the advent of liberalisation is dangerous for the diversity and plurality of ideas in a democracy. After all, freedom of the press must mean freedom of the people – it cannot be distorted to connote the freedom of media corporations to amass profits.

Also, to check the rise of programmes that promote sexist attitudes to women, and violence, a Media Council should be constituted, compromising viewers, mediapersons, and representatives of civil society – and the Government must have no interference in its functioning.

-- Anand Pradhan