Content tracking: On government regulation of online news, OTT services

Self-regulation by news media is necessary, but censorship by government is uncalled-for

Updated - November 14, 2020 12:20 am IST

Published - November 14, 2020 12:02 am IST

The recent decision of the government to bring video streaming services and online news under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was much anticipated, though with some trepidation. This government has, from time to time, made it clear that it is in favour of bringing these digital services under some sort of regulatory framework. Recently, when the Supreme Court asked for its suggestions toward improving the existing self-regulatory mechanism for television media, in a case involving Sudarshan News, the government stated that regulating the digital media was more pressing . More regulation is usually a problematic idea, bringing with it the real risk of censorship. But on one count at least this decision may have some merit, and that is if this is targeted at levelling the playing field by bringing new digital players within the purview of a regulation that non-digital players have been subject to all these years. New movies, before theatrical release, have to get through the certification process of the Central Board of Film Certification. In contrast, video streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, which have become key distributors for new movies and entertainment content and have gathered millions of subscribers in India in recent years, have not had to follow any such requirement. It cannot be denied that regulation, of the light-touch kind, which serves as an advisory for the content being presented to the viewers, plays a useful role.

But is the intent here to create a level playing field, and nothing more? And how will the regulatory mechanisms function? These will be the key questions. The fear is that this will just end up facilitating more governmental interference and censorship, especially problematic when it comes to regulating digital news. There is little to be said about the average politician’s appetite for independent journalism and political satire. In a democracy, whose progress is dependent on free speech, it is important then that regulation is not an excuse to stifle voices, especially those not palatable to the ruling class. There is little doubt that digital media have grown to be influential even if some sections have struggled to make money. The government recognises this, and just a few months ago, introduced new investment rules for digital news media, where a number of legitimate initiatives have now taken shape. It is also important that the government recognises that there is really no reason to have a different regulatory mechanism for digital news. For decades now, the print media and television media have managed themselves in self-regulation frameworks where one of their main goals has been to maintain their independence. Self-regulation is a must, and censorship a definite no-no.

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