The regulation of content within OTT (Over-the-Top) media and other digital media have fallen under the purview of the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeiTY) was relieved of this responsibility under a notification issued by the Central Government on 9th November 2020.
The issue of regulating OTT content was first brought to the Court in October 2018. The Justice for Rights Foundation had filed a suit in the Delhi High Court seeking to create a proper structure to regulate online content. The further imposition of regulations on the platforms distributing the content was also suggested. In response to a notice sent by the Court to the government, the Ministry of Electronics and Information technology had stated that the IT Act was enough to regulate online content. This was found to be enough by the Court, and the plea was thus dismissed. In the Padmanabh Shankar vs Union of India case, a suit was filed to bring online video content under the purview of the Cinematograph Act, 1952. This required films to have an approval certificate from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Here, the Karnataka Court observed that online content did not fall under the Cinematograph Act, 1952 and hence the suit got dismissed. The Firoz Iqbal Khan vs The Union of India case is important to the decision of the government. Here, the Supreme Court had asked the Centre for its opinion to improve upon the practice of self-regulation done by the media. In response, the Centre had issued the order to bring digital video streaming services under the purview of the I&B ministry.
The CBFC and the BCCC
The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is a body which is part of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The CBFC is notorious for its harsh censorship rules which are criticized for being conservative. Online media platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have been a platform for artists to explore their creativity. This is owing to the deregulated nature of these platforms. But, the arrival of the CBFC in the online media platform scenario is indeed going to be troublesome. A considerable number of movies and shows have embraced some highly modern values which would not sit well for the orthodox members of the CBFC. Films such as Udta Punjab, Sameer, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were censored. Some films were denied a ‘U’ certificate citing outlandish reasons. The Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) is another statutory body under the I&B ministry. They have come under criticism for the censoring of topics such as homosexuality. Segments got removed from shows as they didn’t adhere to certain ‘Indian values’. A backlash occurred when an episode from season 5 of Game of Thrones got cut from its original length. The 45-minute episode got cut to 22 minutes, censoring important parts of the story. The censorship laws within the country are stringent. Thus, TV channels and film production houses exercise a high degree of self-censorship. This is in practice to avoid coming under scrutiny from the government. OTT media coming under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting would result in online content regulation coming under the purview of the CBFC and the BCCC. This marks the first time where the I&B Ministry is stepping foot in digital media. This decision will affect online news outlets and almost all forms of media currently operating online. Fearing censorship by the government, OTT media platforms have devised a code. This code would dictate which content streamed within these platforms would get scrutinised. This code included the prohibition of any slander to the national emblem, child pornography promoting content, any content that may hurt any religious sentiments, and content that has become banned in the country by a court of law. But this got rejected by the government.
The Future of Indian Media
The fourth estate is an essential pillar of democracy. Media plays an important role in determining the thought process of the masses. This is why the media has been highly regulated in countries that have a low democracy index. The freedom of the media of a country determines how receptive society will be to new ideas and achieving a more global outlook. Censoring of the media will result in the censoring of new ideas and new creative thoughts. Only at a pace where a free and thriving media thrives, will there be progress and harmony. Media has always been a source of creativity and a medium for the voice of the people. Without such a medium, where the people can express adequate dissent, the very concept of democracy becomes watered down. India has fallen to the 51st position within the EIU democratic index. The democratic score of India has fallen, making our country a flawed democracy. The EIU has stated that the fall in civil liberties within the country has been the main cause of its downfall in the Index. Further censorship of the media can only result in further degradation of democracy. This contributes to the formation of a country with few democratic values. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution grants the citizens of India the right to freedom of speech and expression. Whether these regulations would uphold the standards of the Constitution or not remains to be seen.
The transfer of control to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is a movie that has many political and legal aspects to it. The government is in the process of designing a new framework for the regulation of OTT content. This new framework has the responsibility to uphold the integrity of the media within the nation. Time will determine their impact on the future of the Indian media.
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