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Move to regulate online media unlikely to make progress just like past attempts on print and broadcast, I&B officials say.

New Delhi: When previous information and broadcasting (I&B) minister Smriti Irani set up a committee in April to suggest a regulatory framework for online media it sparked fears of yet another attempt by the government to control the media.

Not much has been heard about the move since Irani was shifted out of the ministry in a cabinet reshuffle last month. Officials in the know said it is likely to stay that way as the Narendra Modi government may not want to antagonise the media in an election year.

They also said that it is not just the BJP government that has sought to regulate the media and that the Congress-led UPA government too had made similar moves in 2006. But attempts by both have struggled to make progress as two key bills that deal with the regulation of the print and broadcast media have been gathering dust, they said.

Both bills were conceived by the UPA and the second among them — which aimed to regulate the print media — was actively pursued by the Modi government and readied for introduction in Parliament last year. These two bills should have served as a reminder to the I&B ministry of the challenges it could face in trying to regulate the media, the officials said.

One of the two bills, The Registration of Newspapers and Publications Bill, 2017, seeks to replace the archaic 150-year-old Press and Registration of Books Act of 1867. The other, The Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2006, drafted over a decade ago, seeks to regulate television and radio.

While the bill on the print media has been put in cold storage, there has been little movement on the broadcast bill after its first draft, a top official in the ministry told ThePrint.

Soon after taking charge of the ministry last month, I&B minister Rajyavardhan Rathore had emphasised the need for self-regulation by the media, indicating the new thinking in the ministry.

Registration of Newspapers and Publications Bill, 2017

The bill, ready for implementation, is stuck in the ministry. Ministry sources said then I&B minister M. Venkaiah Naidu was keen on bringing in the legislation and even held meetings with stakeholders. However, his successor Irani wasn’t keen on pursuing it and it has been on hold since. Sources said there were strong objections from sections of the newspaper industry opposing a clause on tackling paid news.

A provision in the bill proposes action against publishing paid news, a problem which the Election Commission of India too is struggling to tackle. Another provision in the bill states that publications found publishing paid news, upon an inquiry held by the Press Council of India, could face suspension for 45 days, or cancellation of their registration by the press registrar general, if they continue publishing paid news.

India doesn’t have any law at present to tackle paid news. The EC has a set of rules in place against paid news, but a recent high court order ruled that it cannot have a say on content.

The proposed bill also has the provision of de-freezing the certified title of a publication and opening it up for use by other publications if it has not been brought out as per the declared periodicity for more than a year.

A former official who was closely associated with the I&B ministry said that the draft of the press bill was finalised after a lot of deliberation and it had addressed several contentious issues.

“The objective was to draft something that shed the colonial mindset of control, address the present day issues and concerns, be reflective of the government’s regard for an independent media and recognise the role of media in a democracy,” said the official who has since retired.

“It simplified the procedures that shackled the print media or hampered its functioning. The process of consultation with various stakeholders was initiated. I’m not aware what happened after that,” the official said.

Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2006

This bill was drafted in 2006 during the tenure of UPA-I when Priyaranjan Dasmunsi was I&B minister.

The bill had provisions to regulate broadcasting services, including private TV and radio channel, and aspects like content, media ownership and subscriptions. It also recommended setting up an independent broadcast body, Broadcast Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), and came up with a separate content code to regulate the quality of programmes aired, consumers’ interest, right to privacy and national interest.

The bill had caused a furore at the time, with broadcasters terming it a ‘draconian’ legislation aimed to control content and thus impinging on their freedom of speech. They had also questioned the autonomy of BRAI.

After vehement opposition from broadcasters, the UPA government decided to review it. The bill has been pending since.

Highly-placed sources in the ministry said the bill was taken up once again last year, where the original number of provisions was pruned by more than half.

“The first draft of the bill was made where provisions of content regulation were removed. The original bill was indeed draconian and ill-conceived. However, since then, there has been no movement,” a senior official said. “With elections around the corner, the government is unlikely to act on either of the two bills.”

At present, the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act, 1995 is the only law that governs the TV industry and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is the only body regulating broadcast media. There is, however, no regulatory mechanism for radio channels.

‘Resistance from media’

Congress leader and former I&B minister Manish Tewari said both bills could not see the light of day because of resistance from the media industry.

“I can’t talk about this government, but when we had tried to bring about the broadcast bill, there was a lot of resistance from the industry regarding provisions of a regulatory mechanism over broadcast content,” Tewari said.

“It was the brainchild of Mr Dasmunsi. Unfortunately he slipped into coma soon after and then there was the Mumbai attack which was covered irresponsibly by TV channels,” he said.

“When Ambikaji (Ambika Soni) took over, she was more in favour of self-regulation and then there were general elections soon after. As far as the bill on print media is concerned, we tried to push it hard, but again there was a lot of resistance from big media houses and even associations like INS over the clause on paid news that we had put in the bill,” Tewari said.

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