With more than 400 news channels, India, without any doubt, is the world’s most over-served news market. In this huge market, there is an alarming rise in the phenomena of paid news, fake news, biased news, and unreliable news. Trying to set an agenda for the country, most news television channels in India can easily be identified as either pro-government or anti-government. Not only this, the daily schedule of most news channels consists of talk shows, comedy programmes, and music events, as if they are trying to turn into General Entertainment Channels. India’s electronic media has been in the news this year mostly for the wrong reasons, be it the TRP scam, the sensationalist stories pertaining to the Sushant Singh Rajput case or the alleged vilification of the Muslim community over the Tablighi Jamaat congregation. Dissatisfied with the self-regulation by TV channels, the Supreme Court has given the Centre three weeks to inform it about steps to form a statutory regime for regulatory purposes. The court also wants the government to specify how the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act can be used to control cable TV content. The Act, enacted in 1995, empowers the Centre to regulate or prohibit the transmission or re-transmission of any channel or programme in the interests of national sovereignty or security, public order, decency, morality etc. There is no denying that Indian television news industry is facing a credibility crisis. As on date, there is no statutory regulatory mechanism for news channels and they are regulated by several self-regulatory bodies such as the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), Broadcast Editors’ Association and News Broadcasters Federation. One of the primary effects of the absence of a statutory regulatory body to regulate the content of news channels in India is that viewers are in a conundrum as to what content is reliable.
Despite such sweeping powers, the government has been avoiding censorship, citing the media’s fundamental right to free speech. In September, the apex court had stepped in to restrain a TV channel from telecasting episodes of a programme that was perceived to be communally divisive. The order had triggered a debate over judicial overreach and curbs on freedom of expression. In that case too, the government had desisted from blocking the controversial content. The News Broadcasters’ Association and the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, both private bodies, are dealing with complaints against the electronic media. If they are not doing their job properly, as noted by the apex court, it is the Centre’s responsibility to intervene and ensure compliance with provisions of the 1995 Act. The government needs to issue advisories and warnings from time to time to make errant channels mend their ways.
The government had been giving enough hints from time to time that it wanted to regulate digital media (not electronic media), but the exact nature of the regulation it wanted to bring was not clear. The government considers digital media and digital aggregators in the same breath but they are different things. The authorities need to handle situations in a decisive and timely way.