Smriti Irani Reveals Modi Government Plan to Monitor, Regulate Online News.

Union minister for information and broadcasting has announced the possibility of such a framework arguing that the present regulations on online content are “not clear” with regard to news and broadcast content material.

New Delhi: In at attempt to regulate online content – particularly news and opinion –  the Modi government is working on a “code of conduct” and perhaps draft legislation too that it will be “incumbent upon [media] agencies” to follow.

Stating that present regulations governing digital media are “not clear” with regard to news and broadcast content material, Smriti Zubin Irani, Union minister for information and broadcasting, said on March 17 that her ministry is working on legislation and “is already in talks with the concerned stakeholders” on the issue.

While the contours of what the government is proposing are not known, the proposal to regulate online news is likely to open a new front in the Modi government’s controversial relationship with the media.

Speaking at the News18 ‘Rising India Summit’ in New Delhi, Irani gave no details of the planned code of conduct, though she did complain about the capacity of fake news to defame and demean, and the tendency of “certain journalists and media personalities” to cross the “very fine line” between news and views”.

At the same time, she did acknowledge that regulating digital and social media required a “balance and a very delicate one”.

Irani’s remarks were made in response to a question about the possibility of the government intervening to curb hate speech on social media.

TV18 political editor Marya Shakil noted that there is a “a lot of hate, abuse” on social media and asked the minister if she thought the “government can in any way intervene without really crossing its brief”.

I think it’s a balance and a very delicate one,” Irani replied, adding that while television, radio and newspapers had to adhere to a code, “online is an ecosystem where legislation in terms of news, legislation in terms of broadcast content material, is not very clear. That is something that the ministry is currently undertaking, and in conversations with stakeholders.”

Irani then jumped to the problem of fake news, even though this is not an exclusively ‘online’ problem as some of the biggest purveyors of fake news can be found within the ranks of television and print.

“Let it be said that we cannot ignore the capacity of fake news to defame, fake news to demean, or for that matter a particular bile that is seen online which tends to possibly silence you or is possibly engineered so that it deviates you from a path that is constructive,” she said. “But then it it is a technology or it is a space which gives you the freedom to walk away from it, and I think that is the freedom that you need to leverage, that is the kind of engagement you need to have with that platform.”

Asked whether the government could “really act as a troll monitor”, Irani returned to the theme of regulating digital media:

Instead of saying that you are a troll monitor, one can say that agencies that want to be a part of news, and factually want to give, lets say, not only – because news today is also very invested with views, it is not devoid of views – and that is a very fine line that certain journalists or mediapersons tend to cross – so it is now incumbent upon the consumer to have knowledge of what is pure information or what comes over as opinion, and that is, like I said, something that the ministry is considering in terms of putting it in those words which now reflect on broadcasting and advertorials – having a similar line  of ethics and a code of conduct in a free society that is incumbent upon the agencies to abide to.”

Citing the example of the Press Council of India – which she said was “distinct from the government but still self-regulatory enough to awaken its own conscience and take a decision that will bar such processes” in newspapers – and the News Broadcasters Association for television, she expressed her hope “that such a similar body will also emerge for the social media at least in news, opinion and entertainment content.”

‘Problematic’ proposal

Sevanti Ninan. Credit: Centre for the Advanced Study of India

Sevanti Ninan. Credit: Centre for the Advanced Study of India

Asked for her reaction to Irani’s comment, Sevant Ninan, editor of The Hoot, India’s leading mediawatch website, said the minister’s approach was “problematic”:

What stands out in the minister’s comments is her treating news as an extension of social media when she says a self regulatory body will emerge ‘for the social media, at least the news, opinion and entertainment content.’ She goes from answering a question on trolling to stating what agencies that want to be part of news are doing by purveying news that is very invested with views. News invested with views is not the same as either trolling or fake news, so this is problematic, to put it mildly.”

The “formal news industry she refers to cannot be treated as an extension of social media,” said Ninan. “[Irani] wants views to be labeled differently from news in a news product on online media, through a code of ethics. Something like the Red Initiative in newspapers that separates advertising from news.” The minister, she said, thinks self regulation should emerge to tackle separating news from views. “If that is what the ministry is working on, it is a naive concept because views also make news, and comment in a news story amounts to interpretation and is an integral part of explaining the news. Comment sections in online news sites are usually demarcated.”

Ninan noted that the I&B ministry “should surely have the capacity to distinguish between trolling on social media, fake news, and opinionated news.” If Irani is referring to news bias, she added, “that too cannot be tackled through regulation without affecting freedom of speech.”

Not the best role model

Though the I&B ministry’s press and information bureau has held consultations with digital news sites – including The Wire – on the rules for providing official press credentials to digital media reporters, this is the first time the government has spoken of an overall regulatory framework for news websites.

Irani has already attracted controversy for her dealings with Prasar Bharati, the ‘autonomous’ public broadcaster whose chairperson has complained of ministerial high-handedness. Last year, she leaned on PTI – the premier national news agency – t0 delete a tweet which featured a photograph that she claimed was offensive.

She was also one of the ministers in the Modi government who reportedly complained about the editorial policy of Bobby Ghosh, editor in chief of Hindustan Times at the time, red-flagging the fact that he held a foreign passport.

In making a case for regulation of online media, Irani described the PCI as “distinct from government”. But the 28-member statutory, quasi-judicial body mandated to work as a watchdog of the print media is largely dependent on the Information and Broadcasting ministry for financial grants.

Besides, politicians from the ruling party of the day are often its members. There have also been controversies from time to time about the nomination of members from ‘journalists’ organisations’ which fail to meet the standards prescribed for such organisations.

This past November, a tussle erupted in the PCI over the selection of individuals and organisations to the 13th term of the council. After a seven-member scrutiny committee headed by Uttam Chand Sharma, a five-time member of the council and editor of Muzaffarnagar Bulletin, suggested certain names for inclusion in the council, its chairperson, Justice C. K. Prasad reportedly sent a dissent note to the ministry stating that the committee overlooked the criteria for the selection of organisations in the working journalists’ category. Media reports said Prasad was objecting to the inclusion of the Working News Cameramen’s Association (WNCA), Press Association and Indian Journalists Union (IJU) in the new council.

“While the WNCA is a body of camerapersons who are not eligible to be part of the PCI in the category of working journalists, the IJU is ineligible since its leadership is disputed after it split into two groups. The Press Association has not submitted documents to prove their active existence,” said a media report.

Last November, Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan nominated two BJP MPs – Meenakshi Lekhi and Pratap Simha – from the three nominees she is allowed to pick. The third was AIADMK MP T.G. Venkatesh Babu. As per the PCI mandate, five MPs – three from the Lok Sabha and two from the Rajya Sabha – are part of the council for a three-year term.

Over the years, many journalists, including former members of the PCI, have demanded the council be reconstituted to make it more independent from  ruling parties and the government.

The News Broadcasters Standards Authority is a private body completely independent of the government and not underpinned by any law. It is run by a board of directors consisting of people from within the electronic media fraternity, thereby restricting the direct powers of the government of the day to regulate it. Last month, the NBSA fined Zee News for maligning the poet-scientist Gauhar Raza and ordered it to telecast an apology. Zee News has yet to act on the order – which it had volunteered to do when it signed up to the NBSA in the first place.

Current environment for news websites

Unlike print – which requires the registration of a newspaper but not a license – and television, for which a broadcast license is needed in order to uplink from – or distribute downlinked content to – India, news websites do not require any licensing or registration. They are also free – as are newspapers, and indeed every resident of India –  to produce and circulate audiovisual content via the Internet without license or censorship.

Websites are, of course, subject to the laws of the land as far as their content, institutional structure, working conditions, etc. are concerned – in much the same way as any other form of media enterprise.