Monday, 24 January, 2022
HomeOpinionNewsmaker of the WeekFor OTT platforms in India, Tandav blurs the line between self-regulation and...

For OTT platforms in India, Tandav blurs the line between self-regulation and censorship

By apologising and cutting out scenes from Amazon Prime web series Tandav, the makers have set a precedent for the OTT industry in India.

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Whether it’s the ‘voluntary’ cuts by the makers of Amazon Prime Video’s latest political drama series Tandav, or an apology to the armed forces by actor Anil Kapoor and Netflix India for “unintentionally hurting the sentiments” in the film AK vs AK, there is now a rush among OTT platforms to self-regulate and apologise as a way to tackle public furore and FIRs. A precedent has been set. The line between regulation and censorship has been blurred.

Ironically, the makers of Tandav were not mandated to make any such cuts, in the absence of any regulation governing the OTT industry. But they did so fearing arrest in connection with an FIR filed in Uttar Pradesh. The FIR listed grave charges — promoting enmity between different groups, injuring or defiling a place of worship, public mischief, forgery, and charges under the Information Technology Act.

Although the information and broadcasting ministry brought all OTT platforms and digital news websites under its ambit in November 2020, there is no legislation or regulatory mechanism as yet that governs the content streamed by them in India.

A self-regulatory framework brought in last year by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and signed by 15 platform members is currently in place for OTT channels to abide by, but it has failed to garner government support.

Perhaps this is the reason that the Narendra Modi government took it upon itself to act when multiple parties, including Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, approached it with complaints, calling for a ban on the Saif Ali Khan-starrer web series.

After the I&B ministry summoned Amazon Prime officials and held at least two meetings with them, the makers decided to cut two scenes from the nine-part series. In a statement issued subsequently, the makers thanked the ministry for “guidance and support” and apologised for “unintentionally hurting anybody’s sentiments”.

While theatrical releases such as Padmaavat and Udta Punjab had also attracted controversies, they were first cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

But content produced and streamed by OTT platforms remained out of the regulatory purview. In fact, several filmmakers shifted to these platforms because of the freedom and the variety of content on offer.

But that freedom of content often invites criticism. Tandav is just one example. Popular series such as Sacred Games, Leila, A Suitable Boy and Mirzapur among several others have invited complaints in the past. Most have ended up in court cases.

But rarely did an incident invite such prompt action on the part of the makers or even the government’s direct intervention — all in the absence of any governing law or regulatory mechanism.

For this reason, regulation of OTT content and platforms is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.

Also read: Hotstar blocked John Oliver show even before Modi govt could ask. It’s a dangerous new trend

Is only India regulating online content?

In the past few years, the OTT industry has grown as a business with multiple streaming platforms ushering in a new era of entertainment across the world.

But their growing popularity and the ‘unfiltered’ content has left governments concerned, pushing many countries to introduce a regulatory oversight.

For instance, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) of Turkey and the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) in Singapore now keep a close eye on the OTT content. Australia regulates online content under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 through a complaints-based mechanism. The UK does not have specific regulations on online streaming content, while Indonesia may soon come up with a regulatory framework. Saudi Arabia’s anti-cyber crime law acts as the overarching framework for regulating all online content.

According to a 2019 report, Netflix, since its launch, has taken down nine pieces of content following demands from various governments. Majority of them (five) came from the Singapore government. In January 2019, the streaming platform pulled an episode of web series Patriot Act following complaints from Saudi Arabia over the criticism of its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the show.

These countries will now be joined by India, which is looking at ways to regulate online streaming content. While the Modi government is still contemplating on the possible structure, its intervention in Tandav’s case shows that the government is unlikely to leave it upon the OTT platforms to act as per their self-regulatory mechanism.

Also read: Respected judges & ministers, policing Netflix won’t make us sanskari

Will regulation lead to censorship?

Under the 2019 principles of the self-regulation code, OTT platforms resolved to ensure there is no such content that breaks the laws of the land, disrespects the national emblem and flag, promotes terrorism or violence against the State, shows children in sexual acts, or “promotes and encourages disrespect to the sovereignty and integrity of India”.

This is different from censorship where abuse, nudity or politically sensitive content is bleeped out by the platform, either voluntarily or under some external pressure.

But cutting out scenes from Tandav has changed the game.

For a long time, the I&B ministry maintained that OTT players coming together on “a self-regulatory model without the government’s intervention” is good enough.

But of late, that stance seems to have changed, most clear in the ministry’s rejection of the self-regulatory code signed by 15 major platforms.

Given that OTT is still an evolving industry, the Modi government could have allowed it time to come up with a robust self-regulatory code with a solid complaint redressal mechanism even if the content stretches the boundaries of creative freedom.

However, the government’s point remains that while major OTT platforms are largely compliant to the basics — such as providing age rating and content descriptions — many other smaller platforms remain non-compliant. There are about 40 video streaming platforms in India. Some of the smaller platforms include Ullu and regional language platforms such as Aha.

It is not just about the fear of FIRs and arrests. OTT platforms are increasingly turning apprehensive of antagonising the government. In February 2020, Hotstar proactively blocked an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which was critical of PM Modi.

As OTT platforms move from self-regulation to perhaps self-censorship to avoid future apologies, what remains to be seen is who will dictate what content is fine for streaming and what is not, because some or the other group may end up feeling antagonised.

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  1. U/A: Ministerial guidance required for OTT!

    The government has been looking for ways to regulate OTT. And as a last-ditch effort, these platforms have come together to develop a self-regulating code of conduct. In a sense, this began when the Ministry of I&B brought all digital content under its regulatory purview back in November.

    The offence on sentiments inflicted by Taandav, AK vs AK and others only accelerated the discussion on censorship. 17 platforms came up with a Code of Conduct that addresses both grievances and accommodates a complaint redressal structure. But the government isn’t all that happy. The worry is that the code is not enough and it will serve the institution it is meant to regulate.

    It is likely that the government will follow a mechanism similar to the Cable TV Network Rules, 1994. OTT platforms may not like this if it ends up restricting artistic freedom and expression. OTT consumption grew 13% YoY. And with rising subscriptions, the debate on censorship gets trickier.

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