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by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

The Red Flag Waves In West Bengal

(IPS) NEW DELHI -- Across South Asia, ruling establishments are curbing the independent media in the name of upholding democratic values.

India's federal information and broadcasting ministry has put out the draft of a proposed Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2006 which ostensibly seeks to regulate "objectionable" content on television news and prevent media monopolies. Controversial provisions in the bill have been opposed by the journalist fraternity in a country that is often described as the world's largest democracy.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi says the bill is merely a set of proposals to be debated and discussed, and says he is committed to preserving media freedom. Interestingly, India's law ministry, too, is reportedly against the bill.

The bill would set up a regulatory authority that would classify news as "proper" or "improper." In an extreme situation of "war or a natural calamity of national magnitude," the government could take over the "control and management of any of the broadcasting services."

Also, the government can suspend the operations of a television channel that is found to be "hurting public interest." (News and current programs on the radio are still a monopoly of the government-owned All India Radio.) If "program codes" are violated, the service provider's equipment could be seized. Supervision and inspection of service providers by government officials would be permitted to ensure compliance.

If a TV channel is found promoting "disharmony, enmity, hatred or ill will," the government could shut it down.

Many journalists argue this provision can be misused by a political party while in power. Said civil rights activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan: "The penal code has sufficient provisions to allow punishment of persons who publish or broadcast inflammatory content. Those provisions are rarely invoked to prosecute offenders such as the many Gujarati newspapers that fanned the genocide (by sections of Hindus against Muslims in the western Indian state) in 2002."

The proposed bill also mandates: "The broadcast service provider should not give undue prominence to the views and opinions of particular persons or bodies on matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy." In other words, the regulator would decide what "undue prominence" is. This clause implies that even a detailed discussion on the bill itself could be construed as a violation of the proposed law.

On cross-media ownership, the bill proposes various restrictions to prevent the formation of media monopolies by groups owning publications, radio stations and television channels. It has also been proposed that no television broadcaster be allowed to have a market share of more than 15 percent, that is, not more than 15 out of every 100 channels and/or not more than 15 percent of the consumers or subscribers in a city.

Representatives of an association of private television broadcasters met the topmost official in information and broadcasting ministry, S. K. Arora, to register their opposition to these provisions earlier this month on the grounds that they thwart the expansion of a "nascent" media industry in the country. Cross-media ownership restrictions are in place in many countries, including developed nations like the United States and Australia.

Opposition to the draft bill from the media fraternity has forced the Indian government to acknowledge that certain clauses may need to be altered, if not removed altogether. At the same time, civil servants and ministers continue to argue that some sort of "social control" on the media is required; these could be in the form of "guidelines" that require legislative teeth.

Some of the proposals in the draft bill certainly seem deliberate. Checks are sought on "sting operations" using hidden cameras. Apparently, in order to check invasion of privacy by the media, the concerned journalist or media organization would have to explain how the "national interest" or the "public interest" outweighed the compulsions of breaching individual privacy.

"A situation where politicians and government officials decide what is in the public interest is fraught with danger," says Aniruddha Bahal, editor of Cobrapost. "The proposed bill is ridiculous because the government authorities to whom we should be disclosing our intention to conduct a sting operation may themselves be the subject of our investigations," adds Bahal, who supervized a recent television expose in which legislators were caught on hidden cameras receiving bribes to raise questions in parliament.

Last year, the provincial government of central Chhattisgarh state moved to ban extremist Maoist groups and also banned journalists from covering their activities. The ordinance empowered the local government to jail journalists for periods of up to three years for reporting on the Maoists.

"You can't fight an armed rebellion by stopping journalists from talking about it," Reporters Without Borders, the international watchdog body, said in a memo to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in February.

In neighboring Pakistan, which does not have an elected government, the instrument of media regulation, the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), formed in 2002 has the right to issue directives on policy matters "as and when it considers necessary" to private TV channels.

Shireen Pasha, a leading documentary filmmaker in Pakistan, notes that PEMRA has terms and conditions for granting licenses to run private channels that are discriminatory and prohibitive. Ten percent of programs were to be spent on "public interest, to be specified by the government or the Authority."

"There is no provision of a redress mechanism for grievances that channels may have with PEMRA and best of all, state television is not subjected to PEMRA regulations," Pasha remarked with sarcasm at a recent meeting of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) in Karachi.

In December, PEMRA banned 35 foreign TV channels, mostly Indian, for spreading "immoral and unethical values" in Pakistan's Islamic society. In May, PEMRA gagged two Afghan channels, the Pushto language Tolo and the Persian Ariana TV, on charges of spreading anti-national propaganda, after Pakistan had a minor border dispute with Afghanistan. Journalists were jailed for protesting in front of the residence of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. PEMRA has also been regulating FM radio in Pakistan.

"After taking punitive measures against television channels, it seems the Pakistan government has authoritarian designs by giving PEMRA extraordinary powers to confiscate broadcasting equipment, cancel licenses and proceed against owners of media organizations," says Sadaf Ashraf, coordinating editor of the Media Monitor of the South Asia Press Commission.

Nepal had witnessed widespread violation of media freedom by the now-overthrown monarchy after the Feb.1, 2005, palace coup that imposed a state of emergency in the Himalayan country. Censorship was introduced and laws pertaining to media freedom were suspended. The Nepal government disallowed the publication and broadcast of any information that was perceived to be against the royal family and the army or in favor of Maoist groups.

Under the new democratic regime, journalists in Nepal are now looking forward to how the newly established Media Suggestions Commissions would strengthen the working of independent media organizations in the country.

The Sri Lankan government is thought to be considering a move to reactivate the Press Council, which would have judicial powers to penalize journalists. This council had apparently "lapsed into a deafening silence" after some bold media reforms were introduced in 2002 by the government of Ranil Wickremesinghe and private media had set up a non-statutory Press Complaints Commission.

In Bangladesh, journalists' associations are demanding enactment of a law to protect media freedom in the wake of several violent incidents against media persons. Journalists are also demanding repeal of the Official Secrets Act enacted in 1836 by the British government in undivided India.

"This Victorian law is preventing us journalists from performing our duties," Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, president of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (an apex body of eight associations of journalists) told IPS in a telephone interview.

The Maldives government has been planning to introduce a Press Freedom Bill by presidential decree. Article 19, an international watchdog body on freedom of expression, released a report last month saying the proposed bill contains clauses that are too vague and can paradoxically be used to actually further government control over the media.

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Albion Monitor   August 3, 2006   (

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