On her first day in office the new Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Ambika Soni, promised transparency in dealing with issues related to the media industry, saying she would soon initiate consultations with all stakeholders. Among the latter she mentioned journalists, who are often not included in discussions on media-related policy matters and certainly should be.

Still missing from the list, however, were citizens, whose stake in the media in the media is rarely acknowledged and definitely should be.

A recent feature, A Wish List for New I&B Minister Ambika Soni: The CEO’s Agenda , highlighted the concerns of several heads of media companies at a time “when the country’s Rs 50,000 crore media and entertainment industry is poised to take a quantum leap.” According to the article, over the next five years “Soni will be at the helm of critical policy decision making that can make or mar the prospects of a sector that has enjoyed spectacular growth in the post-liberalization era.”

Another piece highlighted FM Players’ Wishlist for Ambika Soni saying that the media industry was looking forward to some positive developments during her tenure.

Informed public debate is necessary if media policy is not to be held hostage to the apparently conflicting interests of the government, on the one hand, and the media industry, on the other.

The documents released with this article (scroll down to find them) provide public access to basic information about media regulation and legislation and aimed at stimulating public discussion on the subject.

 •  Sound and fury over bill
 •  Public missing in debate

What about the concerns and wishes of citizens who, as readers, listeners and viewers, are surely the raison d’etre of the media? Even if some media houses view audiences merely as a necessary means to a desirable commercial end, the fact is that without people buying publications or tuning in to channels and stations media companies would not be sustainable, let alone profitable (unless, of course, they exist for purposes other than informing and entertaining the public).

In the context of the industry-oriented articles mentioned earlier it is not surprising that many of the issues raised by prominent media managers relate to technology and finance. However, most representatives of the television sector also referred to the controversial draft Broadcast Bill and its accompanying Content Code, which kicked up a minor storm, especially in media circles, in 2007. Considerable water has flowed under that particular bridge since then but it is still quite muddy, sluggish and apparently directionless.

In her first interaction with the media after taking charge of the Ministry, Soni did mention that “evolving consensus on the contentious issue of Content Code” was a priority area, but nothing further has been heard since then on that – at least in the public sphere. And nobody seems to even remember the Bill, which involves many important issues besides and beyond the controversial question of who, if anyone, should regulate what broadcast content when, where and how.

In a recent interview to Business Standard marking 45 days in her new job, Soni responded to a question on the Bill saying, “My predecessors have done a lot of work on the Broadcast Bill. I am told several countries have regulatory environment and due mechanism in place for the broadcast sector. I feel the matter should be debated among the media and the government at every level especially when the draft Bill is already in the public domain, but it is not on top of my priority. On content code, my ministry will work at strengthening the industry bodies of broadcasters and news channels.”

Going by that, it appears that nothing much is going to happen vis a vis the Bill or the Code in the near future.

Meanwhile, the Ministry has gone ahead and granted clearance to 22 new TV channels, including some focusing on news. And the continuing confusion about media regulation in a democracy is evident in the reported crackdown on local cable TV channels in Kashmir in the wake of the prolonged public protests that followed the deaths of two young women on the outskirts of Shopian town on 29 May.

What has got lost in the tug-of-war between the media and the government over the Broadcast Bill is the fact that the main point of media regulation is to ensure that the media serve the public interest. Neither government control over media nor total laissez-faire in the media sector are in the public interest. That is why most mature democracies have instituted independent regulatory authorities to deal with the wide range of issues that require attention to ensure the freedom, vigour and vitality, as well as the responsibility and accountability, of the media.

Another fact that has been obscured in the continuing stand-off between the government and the media over the Broadcast Bill is that the Supreme Court of India, too, has clearly stated the need for media regulation by “a public authority in the interests of the public … to prevent the invasion of their rights.” In a landmark 1995 judgment the Court had, in fact, instructed the Central Government to take immediate steps to establish an independent, autonomous public authority – representative of all sections and interests in society – to control and regulate the use of the airwaves. Nearly 15 years later the Court’s order remains unheeded.

However, the Supreme Court's interest in media matters continues. In the latest development in the public interest litigation related to the murder of young Aarushi Talwar and media coverage of it, on 7 July the apex court allowed the girl’s father as well as the News Broadcasters Association to intervene in the case. The petitioner is an advocate who believes there is a need for guidelines for media reporting on such cases. The Bench hearing the case obviously views the issue as a matter of importance that goes beyond a single crime and specific broadcasters, reportedly clarifying that the purpose is “to involve a self-regulatory mechanism for the media in general.”

A way out of the present impasse can perhaps be found through a citizens’ wishlist outlining media policy issues that need to be resolved soon. Informed public debate is necessary if media policy is not to be held hostage to the apparently conflicting interests of the government, on the one hand, and the media industry, on the other.

The documents provided below represent an effort to provide public access to basic information about media regulation and legislation as a first step towards stimulating public discussion on the subject. They include a backgrounder on media regulation (or the absence thereof), a backgrounder on broadcast legislation, summaries of case law relating to different aspects of media practice, and a round-up of some recent recommendations of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. The documents were put together by the author and Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore, with the support of UNESCO. ALF is a collective of lawyers committed to an alternative practice of law.

The documents (PDFs, Reader needed)

1. Broadcast Regulation in the Public Interest, A Backgrounder, Ammu Joseph. This presents the rationale for media regulation as well as for citizens’ participation in media matters before highlighting some examples of media regulatory systems in other countries.

2. Broadcast Law in India, A Backgrounder, Siddharth Narrain, Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore. This reviews key existing Indian laws relating to the media in a pioneering attempt to put together such information and make it available and accessible to the public.

3. Documents on case law relating to media. This is a ground-breaking effort – it comprises a set of four documents examining case law on media-related issues of current interest: the first is a detailed discussion of the case that led to the landmark Supreme Court judgment on the airwaves (mentioned above), the second reviews a number of cases relating to the controversial issue of “obscenity,” the third looks at rules and regulations concerning political advertisements on television and cable networks, and the fourth presents case law on sting operations.

4. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India: Some recent recommendations, compiled by Rohan Saha, ALF, Bangalore. This is a review of selected media-related recommendations of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).