It was only a matter of time. The Government of India gazette notification earlier this week bringing digital media ~ online news portals and other content providers ~ under the aegis of the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry for oversight came as no surprise given that the content streamed/uploaded on digital platforms was hitherto not covered by a regulatory mechanism. In an ideal world, media self-regulation would be the best course.
We, unfortunately, live in the real, some would say surreal, world. In the chaotic contemporary media ecology of India, a statutory body ~ Press Council of India ~ monitors print media; TV news channels are self-regulated by the News Broadcasters Association; the Advertising Standards Council of India monitors content generated by the advertising industry, and films are examined before release by the Central Board of Film Certification.
Given the state of play in the content-generation/ dissemination industry, the case for an independent regulatory mechanism has, despite the acute discomfort of industry professionals and media organisations, gained massive traction.
The governing class, by its very nature and since time immemorial, is always looking for opportunity to shape and/or control the public discourse. And in democracies, this effort is dressed up as the will of the people.
Given the media’s internecine wars of attrition and competitive impulses have resulted in all rules going out of the window, none should be surprised by the government’s latest move. Especially, because the technological revolution of the new millennium has provided a reach for digital platforms which publications, TV channels and cinema-halls can only dream of.
Professional media, whether in the news and current affairs business or entertainment and fiction genres, has its path clearly set out. First, it needs to swallow the bitter pill that there is no support among the citizenry for self-regulation as it exists; it has manifestly failed, in the popular perception. While third party monitoring may be a fait accompli, that doesn’t mean one simply rolls over. An insistence that any regulatory body must comprise a majority of industry professionals with domain knowledge would be a good start to ensure independent content is not handed over to the apparatchiks whether party political, bureaucratic, judicial or from the so-called voluntary sector. For social media, on the other hand, there is a different discussion to be had.
In the interim, the fatal flaw in the reasoning of the State in its attempt to control the flow of information perchance knowledge needs to be amplified. For, it is not as if digital or traditional media platforms are not subject to the law of the land. But in our Constitutional scheme of things, the freedom of the media is derived from the Right to Freedom of Expression for all citizens and is not an explicit right like, say, in the US Bill of Rights. It stands to reason, therefore, that if there is no specific, separate right which has been endowed upon the media there can be no specific regulatory mechanism aimed solely at monitoring it.