Indian media face growing calls for regulation

The rapid growth of revenue-hungry Indian media and recent scandals involving news outlets have prompted growing calls for external regulation, raising concerns about independence of the press.

In May, a parliamentary committee argued for the creation of a statutory body to control the print and electronic media. And in April, the Delhi High Court–in a case prompted by reality television–rejected the idea of self-regulation and recommended the central government form a statutory body to regulate the electronic media. “Absence of state intervention on its own is no guarantee of a rich media environment,” a bench headed by Justice Pradeep Nandrajog said.

Markandey Katju, chairman of the Press Council of India, a statutory body that governs the conduct of the print media, has expanded on such calls, pressing for electronic media to be brought under the purview of the Council. In a column that appeared in The Hindu he wrote, “If red lines can be drawn for the legal and medical professions, why should it be any different for profit-making newspapers and TV channels?”

The calls for regulation follow controversy over the widespread practice of paid news–essentially “advertorials” giving favorable coverage to an individual or issue in exchange for advertising revenue. The recent arrests of senior editors at Zee News for allegedly attempting to extort a whopping 18 million dollars in advertisements in exchange for not airing unfavorable news reports on a top industrialist and politician have added fire to the debate. Zee editors have denied the allegations, and the matter is in litigation.

While many journalists in India accept that the industry’s standards are falling, the growing calls for external regulation raise many questions. Geeta Seshu, consulting editor for The Hoot, a South Asian media watchdog group, agrees that it is time to address maladies in the media. “It is definitely the need of the hour, especially with a media that has grown untrammeled, has covered itself in the most inglorious manner with corruption, paid news, sensationalism, and violations of privacy and suffers little scrutiny in terms of ownership, working conditions, and professional practices in newsrooms,” Seshu told CPJ. “The question is, as always, who will bell the cat?”

In a recent editorial, NDTV Group Chief Executive Narayan Rao wrote, “Who will appoint such a media council? Government? How can that be acceptable? … The media is the fourth estate, the fourth pillar of democracy, and has to be independent of the other three.” Rao also argues that there are already functioning mechanisms such as the News Broadcasting Standards Authority–an independent body set up by the News Broadcasters Association whose members are leading TV news channels–as well as existing laws that should be better implemented. Another body–the Broadcasting Consumers Complaint Committee, which reviews complaints against television programs and ensures conformity with the self-regulatory guidelines–has been in effect since 2011.

Seshu argues that the two regulatory bodies for television haven’t been as effective as they should in keeping a check on their own members, who can simply cancel their membership if findings against them are unfavorable. For example, in 2009, India TV left the News Broadcasters Association after the news channel was slapped with a massive fine for allegedly “deceptively dubbing” an interview. The channel later rejoined the association.

Previous steps toward more regulation have raised alarm. Last year, Member of Parliament Meenakshi Natarajan tried to introduce the Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill, 2012, which would have given the government sweeping powers over the media, including ability to ban or suspend coverage of an event in the interest of national security. The bill would have also created a regulatory body largely appointed by the government. Natarajan’s bill has been shelved in response to a media outcry.

India’s vibrant media landscape includes close to 650 television channels, more than 2,000 publications, and more than 30 FM radio operators running 245 stations. As the country’s press continues on this trajectory of expansion, calls for regulation will continue to echo.

Any form of regulation that compromises the independence of the media has no place in the world’s largest democracy. Not only would it curb press freedom in India, but moves infringing on independence of the media are closely watched by repressive regimes. India must tread carefully, as what happens there will have far-reaching ripples elsewhere.