In September 2019, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry informed the Supreme Court that digital media needs to be regulated since it has a wider reach, a vast audience, and quick dissemination. Presently, there is no autonomous body governing online content in India and this brings up new attention to the matter. India is already among the states where there is almost no freedom for the media because of the government rules and regulations.
According to the latest World Press Freedom Index 2020, India stands at 142 which is even lower than 2019 and 2018 when our rank was 140th and 138th respectively, which indicates that the policies that the Indian government is adopting are taking away the democratic right under Article 19(1)(a) which deals with freedom of speech and expression is deemed to contain the basis of the right to information, which is being ignored by the Indian government. Even after being the world’s biggest democratic country, this is the freedom which is being given to the media houses of our country.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the people were forced to stay in their homes, which resulted in a drastic improvement in the consumption of online media. The OTT platforms and media today are witnessing steady growth across the world. These platforms offer the content suited to the needs and demands of individual consumers. In India, OTT and online news portals are less regulated than their counterparts, like in television and films. This allows the OTT platforms to cater to the taste of the wider audience easily and to attract them. That is why OTT platforms and media outlets all around the world favor investing in India for its wider audience and positive feedback.
The lack of information provided by the Government of India in the transition of the OTT platform and online news portal from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (I&B) is very concerning because the Centre has not yet issued adequate information about this change. The basic right of the citizens is being taken away and showing them content, which improves their image in the eyes of the people which is not acceptable and mere whitewashing the brains of the people and creating a better image for themselves.
This change can allow the Indian Government to compromise the rights of its citizens to untainted information, they can very well suppress any critics and withhold information regarding the ruling party that would change the public’s opinion of them. They can also advertise only their own glory on the front face content of these OTT platforms. This kind of control over freedom of press and media will compromise basic human right to awareness and information, it is comparable to brain washing the public for personal gain and favorable poll turnouts, which is completely against the true values of a democratic nation.
Interestingly, the same Information and Broadcasting Ministry turned down the self-regulation code signed by 15 OTT platforms under the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) for this purpose saying that the code did not have the list of prohibited content, lacks independent third- party monitoring and no well- defined code of conduct.
This move of bringing OTT under the purview of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry could lead to censorship of content, conflict of interest, curbing freedom of content providers, curbing digital media and platforms would need to apply for certification. Furthermore, these new regulations also bring the question of who will regulate platforms like YouTube, which merely act as an intermediary between the content producers and consumers with their policies and regulatory procedures. Who will regulate them and what will the standard operating protocol be? These concerns are still not addressed.
Allowing OTT platforms to come together and impose the self-regulation model, without Government intervention, will provide freedom of expression to them to regulate their content. These platforms often choose to produce movies or documentaries with a touch of politically sensitive issues which are quite relevant at the time. If this content gets verified, it is more likely to see content in the favor of the current political situation and not what is truly going on in the scenario.
That can put an end to ideas, policies that question the government and make it easy to certify the content which makes them look good in the eyes of the people. The move is opposing the statement given by Amit Khare, secretary of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting that though there is a need for level playing, it does not mean that regulatory structure would come into force. The focus of the government is on ease of doing business and less on regulation. So, this move goes entirely against the statement issued.
The case which took place in Faridabad, Haryana where a man named Tauseef shot a girl named Nikita Tomar, point blank in broad daylight saying he was inspired by a character ‘Munna Tripathi’ from the Web- Series “Mirzapur”. Can one really blame the streaming platform for such a travesty performed by a mad man? Of course not, the web series and such always use disclaimers to the public regarding such content, one cannot hold them accountable for something illogical done by a sick minded person.
Even if the Government regulates the content over the OTT platforms, there are various VPNs available for free, which can be used by people to visit any URL around the world in no time and access the content. This will encourage them to go to these links and sources for true information as is done by few people in North Korea, imagine what the largest democracy could turn into because of an unwanted sudden decision like this.
One’s ought to think if the idea of the I and B Ministry holds any reasonable trust in this matter. Not only is it very questionable due to the ongoing public opinion that the government of India already holds too much sway over the media outlets, but the freedom of speech and the right to free press is also already considered to be in a sensitive position. The news coverage is never critical or even slightly scrutinizing towards the leading political party as it is, further regulatory control would mean a heavy blow towards critical journalism that seek to improve the country’s weaker prospects by holding the ones in power viable to be questioned by the public, this decision could impair the continuous democratic values that must be implied to keep a constant rapport between the people’s government and the Indian demography. Furthermore, the lack of detailed information from the Centre regarding the aforementioned changes is also a major point of the public’s concerns on this issue.
It is also apparent that the news outlets currently in regulation by the I and B Ministry are causing further mistrust on this notion. The news channels giving out sensitive and confidential strategic information of India’s military and surgical operations such as the location of bases, dates and time of future moves and the open portrayal of reactions regarding these matters can compromise the nation’s security and give away important intel that can cause the forces to lose the upper hand at the enemies and being unable to surprise them. Indian news channels giving out and sharing the important strategies and plans of the Indian army for dealing with China on the borders, is this not a treat to the national security and how is even I and B Ministry allowing this to go on air and not the positive criticism against the government?
When the Ministry portrays incompetence at regulating the work in their purview, how can it be relayed with additional enormous work of regulating further complicated OTT platforms and online news media? Not to mention that their self- willingness brings up more uncertainty on the intentions behind the new proposal than they can ascertain.
The main reason why the government is putting forward this purview system is apparently because of the nudity that is being portraited online. Nudity cannot be the only reason for this purview system because it’s all in the mindset of the people, who imagine beyond the point, which is being portrayed on the screen. Flagging nudity as the reason for such a step is clearly unjustified, it is the people’s mindset that matters regarding what they perceive outside of what is being portrayed on screen. Furthermore, the censor board and respective platforms already have a strict policy regarding this and the changes are unnecessary for this.
In today’s time we cannot deny that the news channels are merely a source of entertainment and no relevant information is being conveyed by them. For reference we have Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV where he said “MUJHE DRUGS DO” in a live debate and no government official from the I and B ministry objected just because he was targeting the opposition party on the National television. Can we even claim that the rules are same for everyone?
A country where Nanga Baba’s are given respect because of the oath they took to live their life in a certain way and we feel the need to regulate the OTT platforms because of nudity and some positive criticism. In our culture we show respect to Saints who live life in simplicity and barely cover their bodies. Our country is still known for body positivity. So, holding this as a reason is inexcusable.
People are so impatient that they cannot stand the fact that a Muslim guy can kiss a Hindu girl on the temple premises which is fictional, don’t we live in a secular and free country where we have the right to love and express ourselves? Madhya Pradesh Home minister filed the FIR against Netflix for allegedly hurting the sentiments through its web series named “A Suitable Boy”. They demanded a written apology for the same. We are not newly introduced to the concept of sex because India holds the world’s second-largest population, then why we are not able to give this a societal acceptance.
Since India is a democratic country, censorship in democracy makes no sense, in fact, censorship mocks the very pillars of democracy such a freedom of speech and freedom to be heard. Self-regulation is absolutely essential for the proper functioning of anything but that does not mean we need to be checked every time. We should leave it to the OTT platforms where they will make their own guidelines and manage the content which is to be released on their portal. This will be the best alternative and this will help to maintain the essence of democracy but self-regulating the content.
I would like to bring this into consideration that the scope for creative freedom is narrowing in India especially when it involves any depiction of Hindu-Muslim relation.
Uttar Pradesh government has even passed the Love Jihad Bill and we live in a country where the people are triggered by the beautiful depiction of Hindu-Muslim relations. Example: Tanisnq Jewelly advertisement.
Recently we have seen that we are no more even allowed to express ourselves on public platforms. Recently ‘Prashant Bhushan’ said through his Twitter account that he feels that “When historians in the future look back at the last six years to see how democracy has been destroyed in India even without a formal Emergency, they will particularly mark the role of the SC in this destruction, and more particularly the role of the last four CJIs’
He was found guilty for contempt of court this clearly shows that we do not have the basic right to express what we feel. Is this the democratic setup we want to live in, where we are deprived of our basic rights?
Instead of bringing the OTT and online content platforms such as YOUTUBE, NETFLIX, AMAZON PRIME, etc. under the purview, the government should allow them to make their own policies for self-regulation by doing this we can ensure the very essence of democracy is maintained and this will help India to improve its position in the global World Press Freedom Index.
Policies that can be included by the OTT platforms for the self-regulation:
- The different platforms can bifurcate the audience based on age and the level of consuming online content e.g.: G: for general, PG: for parental guidance, PG13: for parental guidance children under the age of 13, NC16: for no children under 16. we can have these kinds of bifurcation among the audience who consume online content.
- We can have a video KYC process for having proper control over the consumers and that’s how we can allow them to consume particular media.
- The creators should take the proper consent from the concerned authorities such as the army and government before releasing the content which is related to the country’s image, sovereignty, and supremacy.
Considering all the points mentioned above we feel that freedom of media in a democratic country like India is very important because the main source of information about the happenings in the country is through media, and controlling the spread of fake information is also very important because it can lead to a distressful situation in the country.
The main idea is that the media and OTT platforms should have the feeling and duty of self-regulating themselves and keeping a check on themselves so that the news that they share does not affect the working of a country as big as ours. People should have the basic right to express themselves and should feel safe expressing themselves and feel confident that their voice matters.
Authors: Sudhanshu Singh and Nethraa Vaishnav Nimbawat.