Readers' Editor

A new template for media regulation – 3

A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

The legal provisions for the freedom of the press are clear. Freedom of the press is not recognised as a fundamental right but is folded into the freedom of speech and expression. When it comes to the media’s responsibilities, governing rules are murky, the regulatory framework is weak and the onus of holding the media accountable is left to a byzantine maze of enforcement mechanisms that fails the credibility test. This series on media regulation seeks to widen the debate and get the voices of the readers and the viewers: the final consumers of news and information and hence major stakeholders in media ecology.

My task is cut out by the prescription provided by the eminent historian Romila Thapar. Knowledge, according to Professor Thapar, requires the teasing out of complexities which cannot be done by insisting that the answer to a question is either this or that. She calls that approach the “one bite answer.” She points out that nuances push ideas forward and encourage explanations. In the first two parts, we looked at the field as it were, and shared some of the recommendations that have come up so far to create a framework that can place the rights and the responsibilities of the media on an even keel.


TRAI recommendations on cross-media ownership have some good suggestions but some real limitations too. Two young media law scholars, Smarika Kumar and Siddharth Narrain, point out the shortcomings of TRAI’s overdependence on competition laws’ definition of “relevant market.” Their main argument is that “Competition law exists to protect competition and not plurality…it applies generically to all markets and is not specialised to specifically address the peculiar implications of media. That is why there is a need to find, outside of competition law, a framework for horizontal ownership regulation, which addresses the unique plurality needs of a media environment.”

Kumar and Narrain further argue that while under the Competition Act, 2002, “relevant market” is defined as a market determined with reference to the “relevant product market” or “relevant geographic market” or both, TRAI has identified only the news and current affairs genre as that which needs to be regulated under cross-media ownership rules, and has recognised these as part of the “relevant product market.”

They make a valid point when they say that there is a limitation in the demarcation of the “relevant geographic market” — that it is only on the basis of language and States. They cite the case of the Reliance-Network18-Eenadu deal, which consolidated news channels in English and several other regional language news channels under a single ownership by reasoning that concentration of media ownership is not measured across language markets, but only within language markets.

One would have expected TRAI to advocate public interest broadcasting codes, an autonomous governance structure and an independent editorial functioning, which is binding and not subjected to political and bureaucratic pressure. But it has recommended barring newspapers and television channels from being owned by political bodies, religious bodies, Panchayati Raj, urban, local and other publicly funded bodies, Central and State government Ministries, departments, companies, undertakings, joint ventures, government-funded entities and affiliates. This negates the space for resourcing for a meaningful public broadcasting structure. It failed to look at the modalities of the British Broadcasting Corporation, the National Public Radio, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Deutche Welle. What is TRAI’s perception of, say Rajya Sabha TV, which has some of the finest programming in the subcontinent?

More issues to address

The domain expertise of the regulator, which is meant to address the questions of carriers like telecom services, DTH and ISP providers is not enough to devise a regulatory framework for the media, which is essentially a content provider. The conflation of rules for content and rules for the carrier not only complicates the discussion but also fails to disaggregate the specific requirements of media on content, on issues of privacy, defamation, trial by media and the right to information. Further, the consolidation of ownership in an integral manner, where the same firm becomes both the content provider and the carrier, is not addressed adequately.

It is vital to understand the difference between a media carrier and other forms of carriers. For instance, a power grid is a carrier that transmits electricity from the generating point to the end user. Though there are many forms of power generation — hydro, thermal, nuclear and renewable — the content from one source seamlessly merges with the content from the other. A media carrier on the other hand can play the role of either promoting or inhibiting a particular content source depending on a range of issues — ideology, politics, preference, urban bias, among other things. In the era of convergence, the new regulatory framework must ensure that the carrier is a neutral pipe that will not prohibit smaller players. The digital revolution should not be the preserve of those who can afford a hefty carriage fee.

(To be concluded next week.)

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Printable version | May 22, 2022 6:50:57 am |