–Kakali Das |
The government has now brought the digital audio-visual content, including films and web shows on OTT platforms like Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon Prime, Zee5 and all of the other streaming platforms, as well as news and current affairs on online platforms under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. This has caused a certain amount of nervousness among people who worry that this would limit creative expression, bring in censorship and control over digital media.A “clarification” issued by the Union Commerce Ministry, has permitted three categories of digital media entities “registered or located in India” up to 26% Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) through the government approval route and has given companies one year’s time to align with the policy.
Censorships on OTT streaming platforms have taken place already. Earlier this year, Netflix censored Vikings in India by blurring out nudity and meat (two cooked pigs) from a part of the show. Last year, Amazon Prime deleted the first episode of season 5 of a CBSshow, Madam Secretary due to its references to Hindu nationalism and Hindu extremists. Hotstar blocked an episode of Last Week Tonight from John Oliver that criticised PM Narendra Modi. With these censorships already in place,now the government with its decision of monitoring these platforms ‘lawfully’ will get the license to try and force censorships whenever and wherever it wants to.
The news that we read from newspapers or television channels receive permission from the government to operate as news organisations but digital news doesn’t need such permission as of now. One could also argue – which is why anyone with a camera or a phone can post what looks like news on the internet and might not actually be real news.
With respect to news and periodicals, there is a pending legislative proposal on the registration of press and periodicals. A draft Registration of Press and Periodicals Bill, 2019 was put out by the MIB that acted as a statutory body for the registration of publications, such as newspapers and magazines based on the PRB act and the Registration of Newspapers (control) Rules, 1956.The government is now contemplating the same regulatory compliance, applicable for newspapers, for the digital platforms as well. However, the consumption of the online news media business, as it allows a considerably more open space, which is critical of the government and is the role of the media, has soared due the absence of a large amount of regulation, in terms of licensing/registration with the government and controlling of the contents.
When we go for regulatory parity under antiquated objective of the Registration of Press and Periodicals Bill, for instance, in which the original contemplation was that everything which is printed must have copy with the government in a public library, I seldom think that it holds true for the internet, and that there are better ways to check fake news and misinformation. How would anybody validate this if every news organisation on the internet had to, hypothetically speaking, register themselves just like television and newspapers? Does this mean nobody can post on YouTube, Facebook if they aren’t registered?
“The government deciding to bring digital platforms under the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, perhaps, if it was an announcement in good faith we would have been fine with it but what adds apprehension here are the events that we have witnessed, that played out in the last few months when the Sudarshan TV’s ‘love jihad’ case came up in the Supreme Court. When the Union government was asked about its reply, it told the court that if anything needed to be regulatedit would be digital media”, Dhanya Rajendran, Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, The News Minute.
“By allowing FDI of 26%, which was reduced from 100%, the government has made it clear that the policy has been created simply with the vision of censoring and limiting the business, by preventing it from flourishing and making it difficult to expand. Moreover, every government today has its anti-fake news task force and 20 to 25 cops or IAS officers as part of this task force, hence the central government’s concern regarding tackling with the ‘fake news’ is almost irrelevant. The existing task force hardly monitors any news and most of the time they are interested in news against the government, which they brand as ‘fake news’, she further said.
This decision by the government makes news on digital media effectively unviable. Because if the digital media start-ups can’t bring in foreign direct investment of more than 26% without government’s approval, it would indeed be difficult for them to expand. Unlike the television channels or the newspapers that have a lot of local investments already in them, digital media require investors to invest in them. The future of these organisations is a little worrisome. The hope of news being reclaimed by the journalist was possible with the help of the digital space. If thesequence of events of how the government is attempting to get regulatory frame around investments and contents is carefully observed, it appears clear that it’s not because of the technical or security reasons, but to jeopardise the existence of ‘digital media’ that the government is scared of.
“Many of the digital websites today depend on subscriptions or memberships, will the government put a CAP restricting the charges beyond a certain amount? I don’t understand what the government intends to do. The problem is that, considering what the government has done till now, we don’t have faith in what they will do in the future. All we know is that the government has given itself the power to regulate the particular sector but what that regulation will look like we don’t know yet”, Nikhil Pahwa, Founder, Medianama
“I have been discussing this a for couple of years now. None of this is a surprise because we have seen the slow burn that has brought us to this particular place. What I have also noticed is the significant amount of involvement of the traditional media players; they, instead of trying to liberate the digital media or themselves, are trying to bring us down to their level. By imposing these regulations, they had lobbied very strongly for that 26% FDA. Initially, Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Information and Broadcasting went out and told that they were encouraging for the benefit of digital media by allowing 26% FDA and frankly that was never the case”, Dhanya Rajendran said.
The News Corp’s acquisition of VCCircle would have brought substantial growth in the world of digital media, but after the announcement of 26% FDA, VCCircle has been sold by News Corp to Mint, as News Corp either wanted to be 100% in the News and Media business or they wanted to be completely out of it. News Corp has effectively exited the country and has sold VCCircle to Mint at a significant reduction in the value. It is a cause of concern for all the media entrepreneurs in the country that exits, acquisitions etc. will be contained within the country.
“Digital media makes this government really nervous because they don’t have any control over what we say online. I remember, I had a conversation with a founder of a news publication many years ago, where he said that we should come together and form an association lobby for being recognised as legitimate media entity so we can get a press card. But what kind of a protection does a press card give us in this country? All it does that it gives one access to government press conferences. So, I would rather have the freedom of speech and the lack of registration of my business as a media entity with the government because it gives them fewer leverage to control us with. This particular move and the Registration of Press and Periodicals (RPP) Bill that is on its way is essentially a means to regulate the digital news media. My question is how do you define digital news media? Does running a personal channel come under the ambit of digital media? Are the personal YouTube news channels come under digital media? If I am running a personal blog where I am writing my personal views, would my blog or the website come under digital media? I don’t know. Even those sitting in the government doesn’t know, until someone pisses them off”, Nikhil Pahwa further said.
So let’s assume, there is a YouTuber who hasn’t registered and continues to post content, will YouTube need to take the channel down? The way Radio has been regulated, it still can’t do news. What if tomorrow the government says that people on YouTube too can’t flash news?Also if a person is not currently based in India, but outside the country, can he/she not talk about India? In that case, can the New York Times not talk about India? It’s untellable on many levels. Frankly, the government merely wants to keep a tight lease on those operating within the country, which is basically creating a structure for the media persons to get out of the country and register in Singapore or any foreign country, which I guess what many news businesses will eventually look to do.
The I&B Ministry is also the regulatory ministry for films and television. A film is required to get certification from the Censor Board before its release. I strongly feel that this will undoubtedly hinder creative expression, out of what we are witnessing on the internet right now. It will honestly take us back to when we only had television to put content out in the public. “I still remember, when I used to work in television, we would always have a long list of guidelines based on what we can or can’t do”– Varun Duggirala, Co-Founder and Content Chief, The Glitch said.
There are people who argue as devil’s advocate that currently in the OTT platforms there are nudity, violence, verbal abuses etc., that our country likes to frown upon and thus, they question as to why are these being allowed in these platforms and not on television or movie studios. In the beginning when OTT platforms appeared, we witnessed how it had eyeballs in the same manner as the television had some time back. But the contents coming out of these platforms have depth, many are highly informative and are made in an effective way in recent times. The fact that everybody is talking about Scam1992, The Social Dilemma, Inside Bill’s Brain and many more is because these are extraordinary pieces of content. The viewers, now, don’t pass around or discuss the abuses, violence or nudity but the storylines, the contents, the craft with the people. We have, finally, matured from an OTT creation standpoint to creating good content across the board. The streaming platforms provide us with options to choose what we want to watch and what not; it facilitates private viewing in our bedrooms. And censoring these platforms will eventually bring back piracy and torrent in the lives of the common mass.