Promoting or Muzzling the Digital Media

02 Dec,2019

 

By Indrani Sen

 

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued a public notice on November 25 soliciting suggestions/ comments/ inputs from the stakeholders on the draft “Registration of Press And Periodicals (IPP) Bill, 2019”. It also announced that the IPP Bill 2019 will replace the “Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act, 1867‟. The 152-year-old PRB Act of 1857 has been amended from time to time in the past and it is high time that a comprehensive new version replaces the act of the British period. On the face of it, industry would have been ready to accept MIB’s move.

 

However, the salient features of the IPP Bill 2019 highlighted by the Ministry in the Annexure to the draft bill have raised many questions. It appears that the process of title and registration of all press and periodicals will be controlled centrally by the Press Registrar General (who will replace the current Press Registrar) appointed by the Government, doing away with the custom of publishers and printers furnishing declaration to local District Magistrate for authentication. This will undoubtedly raise the cost of the process for small publications that will have to travel to Delhi for registering their publications.

 

The IPP Bill 2019 also proposes to strengthen the hands of Central and State Government by giving them the power of framing appropriate rules/ regulations for controlling the accreditation of publications and releasing of Government advertisements. This is ambiguous as if such power is entrusted with both Central and State Government and if in a particular state the local government does not belong to the ruling party at the centre, then a controversy may arise related to accreditation and release of government advertisements in the publications published from that state.

 

One salient feature assures that the Bill proposes to do away with the provision under the PRB Act, 1857 of prosecution of publishers. However, going through the details of the draft, one discovers that the publishers can be fined by the Press Registrar General for not abiding by the rules and guidelines provided in the bill, but would not be prosecuted for jail terms. Reading between the lines, it appears that the publishers will have less scope of defending themselves as they would be given a dictate by the Press Registrar General and most likely would have to first pay the fine before starting a court procedure to protest against the dictate/ the fine imposed on them.

 

Not highlighted as a Salient Feature but very salient for the publication industry is the proposed clause that Editors must be Indian citizens. MIB should look into how many Indian journalists work abroad as editors of foreign publications. Why should we impose such clauses restricting the scope of employment in India in the era of globalisation?

 

Last but not the least, is the Salient Feature “The Bill proposes to have a simple system of registration of e-papers”. The modus operand of the simple system has not been spelled out in the draft bill. As and when MIB finally details it out, one may find it complex instead of simple. However, it is obvious that the intention of the Ministry is to bring all digital platforms dealing with news, e-papers and digital news websites under the governance of MIB.

 

Some people within the industry are arguing that the registration requirements for periodicals do not apply to digital-only media houses as the definition of ‘publication’ in the draft bill says anything which is printed on paper and is meant for public distribution including periodicals, newspapers & books”. I would like to point out that the draft Bill does include a definition for ‘news on digital media’, and Section 18 of the draft RPP Bill, 2019 says that publishers of news on Digital Media shall register themselves with the Registrar of Newspapers of India in such manner and giving such particulars as may be prescribed.

 

Apart from the fact that the phrase “such Particulars as may be prescribed” is dangerously open to unforeseen and unwelcome possibilities, Section 18 raises the question how do we define publishers of news on digital media? Who all are included in the definition? The digital version of traditional newspapers and TV News Channels; digital-only websites dealing with different types of news (political, sports, entertainment, industry specific, etc. etc.); OTT platforms carrying news sections; websites of various industry and technical associations carrying specialised news; websites of companies carrying news about them, their associates and links to related media releases; websites of academic institutes carrying news about their admission, courses, academic delivery, etc.- the list is endless. How will MIB control news websites not registered in India but available to Indian Netizens?

 

In this game of playing catch with the digital media, MIB poses not only a severe threat to the freedom of digital media, but may also end up scrapping the proposal and making a fool of themselves. If it was so simple to control the digital media, then more advanced western nations would have done so by this time. No Democratic country in the world has been able to implement such rules and regulations for controlling the digital media. It would be interesting to wait and watch the developments in India.

 

Indrani Sen is a veteran media professional and now an educator. She writes weekly for MxMIndia. Her views here are personal

 

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