New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government has come up with a set of draft amendments to uplinking and downlinking guidelines for private satellite television channels. One of the clauses in the new draft guidelines states that Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has the authority to withdraw security clearance to a channel before the permitted time period of 10 years, leading to the termination of its licence.
The draft does say that the channel would be given an opportunity to be heard before that.
The draft of the amended guidelines, released Thursday by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, comes amid the Covid-19 crisis, at a time when the nationwide lockdown has led to an increased consumption of media, particularly television.
The I&B ministry has sought suggestions and comments from stakeholders on the proposed guidelines within 15 days.
The need for new guidelines
According to the I&B ministry, there was a need to review and amend the existing guidelines, which were last issued in 2011. This need was felt because of challenges emerging from “fast evolving broadcasting technology”, “changes in the market scenarios”, and other operational developments in the broadcasting sector. There was also a need for creating a conducive environment for ease of business on a “sound regulatory framework”.
Sources in the television broadcasting industry told ThePrint that while the draft amended guidelines would make it easier to conduct business in certain ways, there are a lot of issues that remain unclear, such as the timeline required by the government to issue a licence to a new private satellite television channel, leaving the decision to the political dispensation of the day.
The new guidelines also list a series of penal actions for violations from broadcasters, ranging from prohibiting a channel’s broadcast for 30 days if it uses dual logos, to stopping a channel from live broadcasts for up to six months in case it fails to register for the telecast of a live event.
One of the clauses in the draft guidelines states that once a channel is granted security clearance, it will be valid for 10 years. But it adds that this can be terminated by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs any time within the period.
“Once security clearance is granted to an entity by MHA, it will be valid for a period of 10 years… Provided that if at any time the MHA withdraws security clearance to a permission holder, the permission of the company/LLP shall be forthwith terminated, after giving an opportunity of being heard,” the clause states.
A top industry source told ThePrint: “This leaves a lot of discretionary powers with the MHA.”
The guidelines reiterate that security clearances from the MHA will be mandatory for the company and its directors, in case of a change in directors or appointment of a new executive, change in shareholding pattern, or the transfer of a channel from one entity to the other.
“But, they do not explicitly state if a channel with security clearance already in the broadcasting business will have to go for another round of security clearance from the MHA if it has to open a new channel,” the source quoted above said.
A second industry source said there is a disconnect between the guidelines and the Companies Act, because most of the time, “new directors in the company are from within the employees, and unless the MHA gives security clearance to the person, he or she cannot take up the job”.
“There are times when the security clearance process takes a long time,” the second source added.
No set timeline for getting a licence
The draft guidelines are also quiet on the time to be taken by the government to issue a licence to a private satellite television channel, leaving the decision to the political dispensation of the day.
“The guidelines do not specify a timeline required to get a licence, so business planning can’t take place,” the second source said.
A third industry source gave the example of how Quintillion Business Media, which had plans to operate a business news channel in a joint venture with Bloomberg, had to drop its plans because it failed to procure a licence from the I&B ministry for three years, while fairly newer channels like Republic TV got a licence within months.
The third source added that too much reference to the MHA is also cause of worry, and the absence of a single-window clearance (to get a licence) is also an issue, given that other ministries and departments involved in the process such as the Department of Space and the Department of Telecommunication, are still not aligned.
Also included in the amended guidelines are provisions for penal action, such as a warning and/or prohibition of broadcast up to 30 days, for use of dual logos for a channel or using a name or logo not approved by the ministry.
Tiranga TV, a now-defunct news channel promoted by Congress leader Kapil Sibal, had run into trouble with the I&B ministry last year on this account.
The guidelines also specify that channels which do not remain operational for 60 days should inform the I&B ministry, along with reasons about why it has remained non-operational, failing which, it would receive a warning. In case the channel continues to be non-operational for over 90 days, it would invite suspension or cancellation of permission.
Sources in the government said this provision has been put in because several small broadcasters secure licences and then either continue to remain dormant or sublet it to another entity, which may not have the security clearance.
“This will address the issue to a large extent,” a government source said.
The guidelines also state that channels will have to file renewal applications six months before the expiry of their licences.
Non-news channels can go for temporary live uplinking of events, provided they are not related to news or current affairs, by registering five days before an event.
Broadcast of live events without prior registration will invite penal action, which could include suspension or cancellation of the channel’s permission. The guidelines, however, don’t clarify which event to be uplinked live would be construed as a news or current affairs event, leaving it up to the decision of the central government.
Any channel or teleport found uplinking content not adhering to the Programme and Advertising Code under the Cable TV Act, will be liable for penal action, ranging from warning to be communicated to the channel, to suspension or revocation of permission, or disqualification from holding any permission under the guidelines for a period of up to five years.
‘Ease of doing business will improve’
Industry sources said the new guidelines do address some challenges in terms of the ease of doing business in the broadcast sector.
“The good points are that there are no changes in licence fees and processing fees for temporary live uplinking, and other amendments to the licence (change of name and logo) have been removed,” the first source quoted above said.
Another move broadcasters have welcomed is the registration process for live uplinking needed by non-news channels, as opposed to the earlier requirement of permission.
Other positive things the sources point out are clear guidelines for mergers and acquisitions and inter-group mergers, and the clause of letting a channel remain non-operational up to 60 days with prior intimation, which they say will help save costs.
The guidelines also do not mention preconditions for use of foreign satellites.