Digital media in India has exploded exponentially over the last decade. Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok; premium entertainment platforms such as Netflix, and user-generated content on YouTube make up the spectrum of digital media in the country today. Over the last few years with the growing digital penetration across urban and rural India, debates about regulating the difficult to define information assemblage of digital or social media content have been sparked between media owners, technocrats, parliamentarians, civil society activists, and digital content creators to name just a few involved stakeholder groups.
Despite diverging strategic interests and ideological inclinations, nearly all involved stakeholder groups have strongly resisted governmental oversight and proposed instituting self-regulatory norms instead. Accordingly, players across different media from the news broadcast industry to over-the-top (OTT) content providers have liaised with government bodies and regulatory authorities to formulate oversight measures.
The regulation of digital news media comprises multilateral and interconnected issues and many scholars have discussed in detail how these converge with the regulation of print and broadcast news media. These include dealing with content related complaints from audiences, accreditation of journalists, channel and asset ownership, fixing responsibility for defamatory content, defining professional ethics, setting down fair competition rules and revenue generation norms. However there is consensus on the point that digital media, given the basic interactive nature of the online public sphere, requires regulatory frameworks specific to medium and platform particularities.
Today, audiences who are accessing news online can choose between niche websites covering rural affairs such as the People’s Archive of Rural India to satirical news programs created by non-professional users as well as digital channels of mainstream media publishers such as the Times of India. Given this dense diversity in the online news ecosystem, a persistent question arises from the debate on regulating digital news content : can a YouTube channel doing a weekly news roundup that reaches a few thousand viewers and a digital outlet of an established media house with a viewership of millions be bracketed by the same regulatory framework? Between the two ends of the spectrum are thousands of online voices that blur the boundaries between disseminating information and offering opinionated analysis of political events and current affairs. Thus, at a more fundamental level, the question of regulating digital news media poses the more difficult inquiry about defining the differences between ‘news,’ ‘facts’ and ‘opinions’ in a hyper mediated and information saturated environment.
Regulatory policies whether framed by the government or self-regulatory bodies need to consider this complexity that is at the heart of the online public sphere and news ecosystem. News regulation policies must balance intersecting interests such as encouraging plurality of opinions and options available to audiences; nurturing economic growth of the nascent digital news space, and setting high standards of news gathering, fact checking and dissemination.
In the wake of the mob lynchings of 2016 instigated by the dissemination of fake news on social networking platforms like WhatsApp, there has been sustained pressure on regulatory authorities to monitor the entire spectrum of online content across different platforms. Fake news was considered a matter grave enough to require state-level intervention. To this end, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in April 2018 provisioned a committee with representations from regulatory bodies such as the Press Council of India (PCI), News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and the Indian Broadcasters Federation (IBF). While the committee was later disbanded, the fact that the government had taken notice and was mobilising to institute oversight over the digital news ecosystem became clear. So the inclusion of digital news media in the Registration of Press and Periodicals (RPP) draft bill put forward for public consultation on 25 November 2019 fits within this chronology of events.
The bill replaces the colonial-era Press and Registration of Books Act (1867) that currently frames regulation through registration of print media in India. In its expanded form, the draft bill covers ‘news in digitised format’ as “text, audio, video and graphics transmitted through internet, computer and mobile networks” under Section 18. Prima facie, the draft bill seeks to simplify the process of registration through the Press Registrar General’s office that will supersede the incumbent Registrar of Newspapers in India (RNI). In some ways, the RPP represents a change of approach towards the regulation of the press by decriminalising certain violations. For example, under the new bill, publishers will not face jail time for starting a publication without prior permission from authorities.
On the other hand, the draft bill restricts individuals convicted for ‘unlawful activities’ as defined under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA 1967) or for ‘having done anything against the security of the State.’ There is no clarity about how activities against the security of the State are being defined by the bill.
There is also much confusion about the draft bill’s definition of digital news which is over broad in its current scope. Critics have also called out the lack of clarity about what is covered under the rubric of ‘digital news’ and whether in addition to niche and mainstream digital publications it also refers to blogs or posts on Twitter or Facebook by users expressing their opinions on current affairs. If the draft bill includes the latter in its ambit, India would be the first country in the world to practice regulation through the thoroughly impractical registration of thousands of news websites. Further, including digital news in the RPP is problematic, argue critics who point out that digital publications are already bound by Article 19 of the Indian Constitution that lays down reasonable restrictions to freedom of speech. This is also evident in the numerous civil and criminal defamation lawsuits filed against news media outlets under section 499 and 500 in the Indian Penal Code that was finally stuck down by an HC order.
The bill introduces a “simple system of registration for e-papers” but the inclusion of digital news media is couched in ambiguous language, as definitions of ‘newspaper,’ ‘periodical,’ ‘publication’ especially in respect to printing and submission of physical copies apply more strictly to the print media. From this point of view registration of digital editions of newspapers and digital only publications may be exempt from the purview of the draft bill. Contrarily however, because of the lack of delineation there is leeway for media houses to club digital subscriptions along with their print circulation figures and allow them to claim a larger readership and command higher advertising rates.
The draft bill in its current form also dropped recommendations from a parliamentary panel to monitor paid news which is a major source of revenue for print and digital media channels. Such provisions in the current draft bill might bolster the financial power of ‘legacy media’ at the expense of numerous news websites that are largely driven by advertising-free and subscription-based revenue models. The existence of such websites is important as proved by their consistent coverage of issues that are largely ignored by mainstream media. Regulating the online space may also hinder the work of independent journalists, fact checkers and informed netizens from playing the role of media watchdogs.
Manisha Pande, executive editor of the Newslaundry, a news website that runs solely on subscriptions from audiences, reiterates that there is a dire need for regulatory standards in news media in order to develop a well-informed citizenry. She points out that governmental intervention cannot stop at registration or regulation of news media outlets alone. In addition, regulatory authorities need to direct attention and resources to proactive citizenship awareness initiatives such as media literacy programs. Such programs would educate audiences about media businesses and make them alert to the pervasiveness of misinformation choking media channels.
The critical question in forming regulatory standards is: who will define these standards, how transparent would the regulatory process be, and how and to whom would errant journalists and organisations be accountable. As mentioned earlier, self-regulation is touted as the proverbial middle path that has achieved some level of success in countries like the UK. However it has been largely an unqualified failure in the case of press and broadcast media in India. This does not set an encouraging precedence for instituting self regulatory norms in the digital news space. At this stage, there is a need to re-imagine how regulatory practices can walk the tightrope to achieve their stated objectives without compromising the development of a diverse online news ecosystem nor engender its freedom of expression nor infringe on the right of audiences to keep themselves informed.
Suyash Barve is a research intern at ORF Mumbai.
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