New Delhi: The Washington Post in an investigation of behind the scenes goings on at India commissioning decisions of big streaming giants from the US, Amazon’s Prime Video and Netflix, concludes that “just as the BJP and its ideological allies have spread propaganda on WhatsApp to advance their Hindu-first agenda and deployed the state’s coercive muscle to squash dissent on Twitter, they have used the threat of criminal cases and coordinated mass public pressure to shape what Indian content gets produced by Netflix and Prime Video.”
The newspaper has spoken of how the “culture of self-censorship pervades the streaming industry here, manifesting in ways both dramatic and subtle. Executives at the India offices of Netflix and Prime Video and their lawyers ask for extensive changes to rework political plots and remove passing references to religion that might offend the Hindu right wing or the BJP, industry insiders say.”
The investigation zeroes in on how “projects that deal with India’s political, religious or caste divisions are politely declined when they are proposed, or dropped midway through development. Even completed series and films have been quietly abandoned and withheld by Netflix and Prime Video from their viewers worldwide.
Film director, Anurag Kashyap has termed the results as being akin to that under an “invisible censorship”.
‘Self-censorship’ Plus Plus
The newspaper dates back the impact of methods involving outrage, restrictive government rules and threats of the police to what happened with the series, Tandav, a Prime Video production, which it describes as “a watershed moment.” An employee of the streaming giant here “was forced to briefly go into hiding and surrender her passport to police, according to people familiar with the matter”, as per the report.
Parth Arora, a former director of production management for Netflix India told The Washington Post, “You wanted to make sure that you are not making the same mistakes that happened on ‘Tandav.” He added, that companies “had to review the projects going forward.
Many projects greenlit and also shot were not used, including one series called ‘Gormint’ that has commentary on the state of the government and is critical of Indian politics, what The Washington Post terms, “a satirical series billed as India’s answer to “Veep”.
In 2021, Anurag Kashyap told The Washington Post, in 2021, Netflix shelved an adaptation of the nonfiction book Maximum City, “which explores Hindu bigotry and the extremes of hope and despair in Mumbai.”
In early 2021, says the newspaper, the first bid to control OTT platforms was made when “the Indian government introduced a system of self-regulation in which streaming companies must resolve viewer complaints within 15 days, or else face regulatory scrutiny by an industry body or a government committee staffed by various ministries.”
It’s the Numbers
Industry insiders plead economics, which is allowing the current government to instil a chilling effect, self-censorship as well as direction from streaming giants to creators to not be candid. Streaming revenues in India are projected to grow from $2.6 billion in 2022 to $13 billion in 2030, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Boston Consulting Group.
Deploying Mobs for Politics?
The viewer ‘outrage’ and its deployment for larger political goals is explained via the case of Tandav.
Ramesh Solanki, was the right-wing petitioner who filed the first police complaint against the series in 2019. In an interview to the newspaper, Solanki described the existence of “hundreds” of WhatsApp and Facebook groups where Hindu nationalists like himself had gathered “to discuss how to apply pressure on streaming platforms.”
“The groups’ members were scattered worldwide, he recalled, and offered financial and legal aid to those who volunteered to file complaints against the foreign companies.”
Solanki said, he was flooded with congratulatory messages from BJP leaders and, in 2022, joined the BJP. He boasts to the newspaper, that Prime Video and Netflix have learned their lesson, “They are aware: If we do any mischief, if we cross the line, we will face the music.”
“You self-censor stuff,” a director told The Washington Post. “There is a gun to your head because at any point of time, it’s so easy to mobilise a bunch of people.”
New Controversial Draft Broadcasting Bill
A new controversial draft broadcasting services (regulation) bill, 2023, set to replace the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act legislated in 1995, now wants to be able to regulate the entire media space which has exploded with the advent of the internet offering direct broadcast options as well as social media and the prevalence of relatively cheap broadband.
The draft has been criticised by senior media scholar Sevanti Ninan in a piece titled New Talons, particularly for its ‘three-tier regulatory framework’. Ninan writes of the heavy handedness proposed, all the while preferring to call it a ‘light touch’. “Neither broadcasters nor OTT operators think the three-tier regulatory mechanism proposed in the new bill is a ‘light touch’.”
What is worse, “India is going to be one of the few democracies in the world which require broadcasters to set up content evaluation committees to certify programmes that should be broadcast.”
Replacing the nine-page bill of the past with a 72-page bill has been viewed with dismay with digital rights groups too, as leaving far too much in the sphere of government discretion. The Internet Freedom Foundation notes that the Bill includes 60 instances of “as may be prescribed” and 17 instances of “as notified by the [Union] Government”.
A provision, calling for explicit seizing of equipment also signals intentions far from “light touch regulation.” Clause 31 allows the Union government to inspect, intercept, monitor, and seize the equipment of broadcasting networks and services.
India is currently at 161 of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom index and the Swedish Sweden’s International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, or International IDEA, studying democracies for decades globally, along Global State of Democracy Index (or the GSoD) that it measures, found that India’s score on fundamental rights in 2010 was low at .58.
But by 2020, it fell further to .54. In the decade between 2010 and 2020, India’s score on civil liberties tanked from .65 to .53.