Millennium Post

Let’s check media expression

Let’s check media expression
Perhaps not the same story as of the bloody crimes committed on streets, but increasingly, bloodless crimes (but with huge potential of spilling blood) are being committed by ‘expression’ shops in media. Whether expressions such as ‘democracy’ and ‘press freedom’ fit in the present scenario of political fight in TV and social media, is a question that has raised its head? Freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution of India encompasses all sorts of communication including TV, social media or cell phone media. An earlier debate and demand in India to make ‘express’ provision for Freedom of Press as in the US Constitution was rendered irrelevant because of the advent of new media. The electronic media grew very strong and extended its reach much beyond print media. The words used in Article 19 were recognized universally to be quite apt as they can incorporate any new kind of expression which technology might invent in future. The technological ease and speed of communication facilitated every person to express and reach others, without being a journalist or a media person.

It is an unprecedented phenomenon that media, which enjoyed reputation as fourth estate, is under scan by social media; and civil society has grown as a ‘fifth estate’ empowered by the power of expression of the Internet. However in developing countries like India, the TV channels dominate the media world in spite of speedy growth of broadband power. Surpassing the barrier of illiteracy, TV is reaching every one. With hundreds of channels there is a quantum leap in communication of news content which is either on par with or excelling above the entertainment content.  This technology created a strong business group of cable TV operators while channels were started by business and political groups. The expression related crimes grew in number necessitating the regulation and introduction of new criminal law.

The Cable TV Network Regulation Act 1995 created an obligation for TV channels and Cable TV operators (or any person) to not to telecast offensive programmes, which, if done would be a crime attracting imprisonment and penalty. They shall not transmit or re-transmit through a cable service any programme unless such programme is in conformity with the prescribed programme code, as per section 5 of the Act. If this provision is violated, as Section 16 provided, they can be punished, for the first offence, with imprisonment for a term up to two years or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees or with both. 

Punishment for subsequent crime or repeated crime is enhanced. For every subsequent offence, there can be imprisonment up to five years and with fine, which may extend to five thousand rupees. Apparently this provision looks innocent but it poses a serious problem for those who telecast, i.e., any person, such as TV channel, operator, Internet content developer, or sending text messages or images through cell phone based computers via Internet. Every repeat telecast might attract separate punishment as a different unit of crime.  Thus the TV channels who repeat a programme at least once in one hour land to face a dozen charges of this crime and if proved will have to be in jail for multiples of ‘five year’ terms.  The danger of punishment stares at every ‘irresponsible’ remark with defamatory content.  The Act does not directly define a crime; one section simply says one shall not telecast in violation of programme code, and the other says it will be punished with imprisonment and fine.

But the real problem lies in the programme code, which is put beyond the Act as an annexe. This programme code says: (1) No programme should be carried in the cable service which (a) Offends against good taste or decency... (d) Contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half truths ... (i) Criticises, maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country... (m) Contains visuals or words which reflect a slandering, ironical and snobbish attitude in the portrayal of certain ethnic, linguistic and regional groups. Any programme which violates the above rules will attract two to five years imprisonment, and perhaps every day the TV operator might end up paying five or ten thousand.

With this group of catch-all legal expressions, it is difficult to script content of a TV programme without getting into the vast net of cable law criminality. It is still an ‘unused’ penal potentiality retained by the state to be used against these expression crimes. Similar to a defamation law which punishes any publisher (printer or financier) who does not even have any knowledge or control over the content, this law also can punish a cable TV operator who was just facilitating transmission and wasn’t involved with the scripting of the content.

The argument of Telangana MSOs is interesting. They say: if every day a crime, such as telecasting an offensive or insulting and degrading (Telangana legislators) programme is telecast and repeated by one or two channels, it might pose a serious risk of imprisonments i.e. five years x number of repeats. Then why should they telecast? Assuming that there is even a single such crime a day, they will still be facing the risk of a five year penalty every day as certain channels are bent upon committing this crime knowingly and wantonly to achieve their political or business targets. One of the operators justified their decision to block the channels saying that instead of facing this risk of prosecution every day, it is better to prevent such crime by disconnecting the channels. This disconnection is not a breach of contract too, because the agreement contains a term of not to generate an illegal content. If Cable law imposes an obligation to telecast, it also mandates not to telecast offensive programmes. The cable operators have rightfully questioned that why should society tolerate suppression of Telangana by media’s excesses?

A classic example of media bias can be examined in the same case. In Telangana, it turned out to be a war between pro and anti-Telangana elements laced with caste and political hostilities; a war between private censorship verses commercial-cum-political expression in Hyderabad. The TV9 and ABN Andhra Jyothi are rich, reputed channels in both the Telugu-speaking states. While the complaint against TV9 was specific about a nasty telecast insulting MLAs, there was no such specific issue against ABN Andhra Jyothi channel, except for their steadfast bias for Telugu Desham party and explicit tirade against TRS.

In a nutshell, the electronic media majorly in both these states is neither free nor objective. Their editorial policy is dictated by political agenda of the shareholders. The media hence market the politicians and parties to the people, for promoting their own parties and campaigning against opposition. Most of such news channels make money by disrobing the leaders and artists of the opposite group. The public interest stands heavily compromised; and objective news analysis could be just a mere bye products or side effect. Besides this strong control by political parties, caste issue too dominates the media organisations which incite political wars as a matter of policy.
Till June, 90 per cent of Telugu media was opposing bifurcation of AP. Now they attack and denounce Telangana Rashtra Samithi Government in Telangana and promote TDP Government in Andhra Pradesh. Print and electronic media have come up with Telangana and Andhra Pradesh editions; news content is almost the same in both channels except that the respective CMs and Ministries get extra coverage.

One can clearly notice anti-Telangana CM and pro-AP CM programmes in these channels. The Telangana channels broadcast debates and special stories with abuses and innuendos resulting insulting and defamatory remarks against Telangana leaders. On a professional level concerning news content, only headlines are debated that too on biased lines. Details of news are never made available to viewers; lost in an unfathomable obscurity.

Commercial use of constitutional freedom such as for promotion of a political party at the cost of the other is not the objective of Article 19(1)(a). The TV screen has become a battlefield for the channels in building opinions in favor of and against political parties. While Telangana at the moment just has one or two channels and newspapers, anti-TRS parties have several channels and papers.
When a democracy witnesses a conflict of opinions intermixed with vested interests, the socio-legal equations are bound to change. The present law is vague, confusing and insufficient to deal with commercially designed and politically biased media content; falling an easy prey to the latter.

The author is Central
Information Commissioner
Madabhushi Sridhar

Madabhushi Sridhar

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