Monday, April 19, 2010

Broadcast Code in India

With the recent banning of FTV till 21st March by I&B Ministry, the regulation debate seems to have returned once again after it hit headlines in the post Mumbai attack scenario. It had showed “indecent” stuff during the day which can be shown only after 11 p.m. at night. It is another matter that the same I&B ministry has a Film Censor board that clears profanities and bikini scenes for films in the name of creative freedom.

Television in India has come to the forefront in the last 10 years. From two channels prior to 1991, there are now around 500 channels with multiple operators and niche channels. This explosion has posed challenges for ethics, accountability and transparency across the industry.
                                              Since 1997, there has been the Prasar Bharati Act, promising autonomy, and the Cable Regulation Act, almost equally liberal. The rules of programming are there in the programme code of the Cable Act of 1995 for all to follow. Since the ministry cannot monitor the content of each of them, the sector has remained virtually without any regulation.

But the media seems to have little respect for this autonomy and has involved in all sorts of frivolous activity.
Rule 7 (11), Cable Television Network Rules, 1994 states: “No programme shall carry advertisements exceeding 12 minutes per hour.” An analysis of prime time of six news channels showed that the violation of this law is more the norm than the exception . Five of the six news channels of this study had an average of around 30% and on some channels, 60% of prime time slots went to ads!
There was this fake sting operation against Delhi school teacher Uma Khurana- a totally fabricated television story that sparked off riots in the Capital. This was a blatant violation of all canons of journalistic ethics.

Given the background of how our advertisement dependent media has degenerated and is still struggling for revenue, the question is, “Should we bring broadcasting industry under a more stringent regulatory regime?”

Before moving further let us take a look at the Broadcasting:

Although, the Broadcast Code was chiefly set up to govern the All India Radio, they have ideally been practiced by all Broadcasting and Television Organization; viz: -

     To ensure the objective presentation of news and fair and unbiased comment
     To promote the advancement of education and culture
     To raise and maintain high standards of decency and decorum in all programmes
     To provide programmes for the young which, by variety and content, will inculcate the principles of good citizenship
     To promote communal harmony, religious tolerance and international understanding
     To treat controversial public issues in an impartial and dispassionate manner
     To respect human rights and dignity 

Broadcast codes also do not permit:

a. Criticism of friendly countries
b. Attack on religions or communities
c. Anything obscene or defamatory
d. Incitement to violence or anything against maintenance of law and order
e. Anything amounting to contempt of court
f. Aspersion against the integrity of the President, Governors and the Judiciary
g. Attack on a political party by name
h. Hostile criticism of any state or the centre
i. Anything showing disrespect to the Constitution or advocating change in the Constitution by violence, but advocating changes in a constitutional way should not be debarred.
j. Appeal for funds except for the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund, at a time of External Emergency or if the Country is faced with a natural calamity such as floods, earthquake or cyclone
k. Direct publicity for or on behalf of an individual or organisation which is likely to benefit only that individual or organisation
l. Trade names in broadcasts which amount to advertising directly (except in commercial services

The greatest difficulty about setting standards in black and white is that we cannot have a standard code for all times. Our standards of morality are evolving. Ten years back, there were protests following some intimate scenes between two women in Water, the Deepa Mehta film; today, there we have movies like Dostana, showing more or less the same content, with hardly any dissent. Society is constantly evolving its moral code. At the same time there cannot be a diktat from the government on what constitutes appropriate content.

The government did propose a regulatory measure in the form of Broadcasting Service Regulation Bill in 2007 but it was vehemently opposed. Like it or not, any proposed content regulation in India is usually viewed as censorship as is the case with the existing Indian censorship system of movies.
The News Broadcasters’ Association submitted a proposal to the Centre marking an important step towards establishing internal or self-regulatory checks on their operations. Apart from a Code of Ethics, the proposal includes the setting up of a Disputes Redressal Authority to entertain and decide on complaints with respect to the content of any broadcast.

Within India’s complex, dynamic and evolving media environment, one alternative form of regulation can be a concept called co-regulation . It is essentially a cooperative form of regulation to achieve public objectives, some elements of self-regulation as well as of traditional command and control regulation. The possible prime benefits of co-regulation can be the expertise and flexibility offered by a more specialized industry-based organization and also a detached regulatory organization that is accountable.

While there can no perfect system, it’s time the key stakeholders- private broadcasters, government, civil society and viewers get together to evolve a system that will help meet the larger goals.

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