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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

The Broadcast Bill confuses control with regulation

If you are all interested in the subject, then you are probably as weary and goggle-eyed as I am from perusing all the press reports on the Broadcasting Bill. By the time one has read the STAR TV plants, the Zee TV plants, the minister's little homilies on the subject and the inspiring and inspired columns, it is hard to know right from wrong.

But here, in a nutshell, is what I think is wrong with the Bill: It confuses regulation with control.

The genesis of this Broadcasting Bill lies in a Supreme Court judgment of February 1994, requiring the government to open up the airwaves. The judgment would have been more dramatic had it been delivered ten years ago when Doordarshan was the only option. But coming as it did, after satellite technology had loosened the government's hold on our television sets, it seemed much less significant.

Nevertheless, the judgment and a variety of small incidents (the Nikki Tonight episode, for instance) convinced the information and broadcasting ministry that some element of regulation was required. This made sense on two levels. If we were going to open up the airwaves, then we needed a mechanism to oversee and regulate this opening up. And secondly, we also needed some way of taking action when something like the Ashok Row Kavi/Mahatma Gandhi storm broke out.

When Bhaskar Ghose was secretary in the ministry, he suggested the formation of a Broadcasting Authority. Censorship was impossible and undesirable. But some kind of review was both possible and required. However, it was unacceptable to let a politician control this review. Hence the idea of a Broadcasting Authority which would be a cross between the Telecom Regulatory Authority and the Press Council.

So far so good.

The problems arose when the I&B ministry presented this particular draft of the Bill. It borrows the idea of a Broadcasting Authority from Ghose but then destroys the spirit of his Bill by first loading the Authority with government servants. And second, it seeks not to regulate the television scene but to reinvent it.

The Authority itself will be government-controlled. Four of its 15 members will be secretaries to the Government of India and its secretary-general will also be a serving secretary. The other members will be selected by the chairman of the Press Council, the I&B minister and the vice-president of India. Unlike the Telecom Authority where Opposition figures are required to nominate members, this Authority will end up being an I&B ministry affair.

The nature of the Authority is in keeping with the spirit of the Bill and its provisions. The Supreme Court had wanted to end government control of the airwaves, not increase it. And yet, this is what the Bill does.

Rather than ask the Broadcasting Authority to function as the Press Council does and consider complaints against all channels, it make it a crime (punishable with five years in jail) for cable operators to carry any of the existing satellite channels.

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