A complaints body for broadcasting at last

BY Hoot editorial| IN Law and Policy | 19/02/2011
This Council is meant to make private sector broadcasting more accountable and the big question is whether the Government will bring Prasar Bharati under its ambit. It should.
A HOOT editorial looks at the two decades it has taken to give citizens a complaints mechanism in a country awash with TV channels. Pix: Ambika Soni
In 1990, when the government passed the Prasar Bharati Act it provided for a Broadcasting Council which would take complaints  from the public regarding any programme or broadcast by Prasar Bharati. It was to be headed by a president who would be an eminent citizen, and have ten other members four of whom would be members of Parliament. Seven years later when this Act was finally notified by another governmentthe Broadcasting Council was dropped. Thereafter many regulatory formulations pertaining to private sector broadcasting have been attempted but none fructified, nor  resurrected  in their drafts the idea of a complaints council. One wonders why—it is the simplest and most doable of accountability mechanisms.
Twenty years later a Congress government has now announced that it is the process of setting up such a council, called the National Broadcasting Content Complaints Council which would have 13 members. It is to be headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, or by a former chief justice of a High court. It will not have members of parliament on it, but 12 other members consisting of four members of the broadcasters, four representatives of civil society and one representative each from National Commision on Women, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, the National Commission for SC/ST and fourthly, a representative of the National Commission of the affected party, whatever than means.
This Council is meant to make  private sector broadcasting more accountable and the big question is whether the Government will bring  Prasar Bharati under its ambit. It should.
Though technically the cabinet still has to approve it, hats off to Ambika Soni, she is actually pushing through a measure which will give viewers and those affected by TV broadcasts some modicum of control over what is dished out to them by broadcasters.  Something numerous information and broadcasting ministers who preceded her did not do.
We have to see how much care goes into making this a reality. Will it be speedily constituted, and will it have rules which make it easy for the public to file complaints? Will there be a time bound procedure for disposal of these? Will the justice meted out be reasonably swift? The original broadcasting council had a provision for regional councils. Considering the kind of stuff that goes on air in many states, including on the news channels, regional councils too need to be quickly provided for.  
The two decades which have passed might have saved many victims of television excesses some anguish had this kind of a court of appeal been put in place earlier. Mrs Soni has said that they were compelled to do this because the sector had become so huge and impossible to regulate centrally, that self regulation was the only option.  This will form a two tier system, the first being the self regulation that the News Broadcasting Standards Authority is already doing. The Indian Broadcasting Federation will  take complaints on the entertainment sector. Under the redressal mechanism, the viewers can address their grievances to the broadcaster or the channel in the first place. If the viewer is not satisfied with the channel’s response, then he/she can lodge a complaint with the redressal committee.
The Complaints Council presumably will function as higher court of appeal. It is not clear yet whether complaints can be filed with it directly, or only after the self regulatory mechanism has failed to deliver.  
Mature democracies with free media do not need ministries of information and broadcasting. They need regulators to set broad rules and see that people play by them. Since empowering a broadcasting regulator is a challenge which has eluded government after government, the current one seems to be saying that they have given up the idea and settled for a complaints council instead. Whether it will be cumbersome or effective depends on the people nominated to it, and the mechanisms designed for it.
As for why we need it, you only have to look around. At the voyeurism displayed over murder cases and celebrity suicides, at the blood and gore satellite news channels are not averse to showing. At the media trials which abound, wrecking reputations. Citizens in India have begun to require protection from what television channels can do to them.
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The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

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