New Delhi: The central government’s guidelines for OTT content could be largely borrowed from the programme code prescribed under the Cable TV Network Rules, 1994, senior government officials told ThePrint.
Among other things, the Union Ministry of Information & Broadcasting is empowered to take action against channels for violations of the code, which lays down broad guidelines for content that shouldn’t be aired.
Regulation of OTT content has been a hot-button issue for a while now. Content on streaming platforms is currently not subject to any regulation, and the matter blows up every time a series or movie on OTT services is found “offensive” by a section of society. The Amazon Prime series Tandav is a recent example.
The OTT platforms, which were brought under the I&B Ministry last year, also came together to form a self-regulatory code that was signed by 15 services in 2020.
However, in January, Union Information & Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar said the government is soon going to bring out some guidelines for OTT platforms since it has been receiving “a lot of complaints” against some of the content they stream.
Films and web series streamed on OTT platforms, he noted, do not come under the purview of any regulatory framework like the Press Council Act and the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act or the Central Board of Film Certification.
Sources in the government said the content code is still being finalised and discussions are under way on whether some of its provisions could be OTT-specific — such as designating age classifications, providing content description, or other access control measures.
“The programme code is a good template to follow,” a senior government official told ThePrint.
A second official said there are also talks of setting up an “inter-ministerial committee kind of body” — as present in the Cable TV Network Rules — to take a call over specific complaints on OTT content.
While some broad guidelines could be introduced soon as an immediate measure in the backdrop of “multiple complaints and cases filed over films and series released on video streaming platforms”, the idea is to make legislative changes in the next few months for online content, sources said.
The sources said the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeiTY) will also be involved to ensure compliance to the guidelines by the platforms since OTT content is streamed over the internet. This can involve framing of some specific new rules, they added. It is not clear yet if the guidelines will also apply to online news.
ThePrint reached the I&B ministry spokesperson by email with queries about the guidelines but they refused to comment.
Sources from several streaming platforms said the government is yet to hold consultations with them over what the guidelines would be.
Content barred under cable rules
The programme code is laid out under Rule 6 of the Cable TV Network Rules, 1994. Under the code, any programme that offends “good taste or decency, contains criticism of friendly countries, contains attack on religions or communities or visuals or words contemptuous of religious groups or which promote communal attitudes” should not be carried on a cable service .
The code also states that programmes should not contain anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half-truths, or what is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order, or which promotes anti-national attitudes.
Anything amounting to contempt of court or aspersions against the integrity of the President and judiciary and affecting the integrity of the nation, or content that criticises, maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country, encourages superstition or blind belief, denigrates women and children, among others, is barred as well.
The code empowers the I&B ministry to take punitive action against television channels — including taking channels off air — for violations based on complaints by its Electronic Media Monitoring Centre.
An inter-ministerial committee hears the channel’s side and recommends to the ministry the action that should be taken.
A recent example of action taken by the ministry is the ban imposed on two Malayalam channels in March 2020 for their coverage of the Delhi riots. The ban was imposed for 48 hours but revoked within hours.
When Sudarshan News brought out a series on what it described as “UPSC Jihad” — a conspiracy theory alleging efforts to “infiltrate” Muslims into the civil services — last year, it was found to be in violation of the programme code.
After a few episodes were aired, the ministry sought a modification in the remaining ones, cautioned the channel, and warned it of stricter penal action in case of future code violations.
‘No consultation with the streaming industry so far’
In September last year, as many as 15 of the 40 video streaming platforms operating in the country signed a self-regulatory code. The code outlined a grievance redressal mechanism and other guidelines to be followed by the platforms in terms of age classification, content descriptors and access control measures. The government held regular consultations with the platforms when the code was being drafted.
However, the final code failed to get the government’s support, with the latter seeking greater external oversight in the redressal of grievances about content.
Meanwhile, industry body Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), which drafted the code, is coming out with an implementation document to bring “greater transparency” to the self-regulatory code for streaming platforms and also address some of the concerns raised by the government.
A senior executive from one of the top streaming platforms said “no consultations over the government guidelines have taken place so far and the platforms are clueless so far over what the guidelines could be”.
“Platforms will continue to work as per the self-regulatory framework which is already in place,” an executive from another platform said.
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