The move to bring online news portals under the regulatory ambit of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, along with OTT platforms, is deplorable and shameful.
It is shameful for two reasons:
One: It is an infringement on free-wheeling and fair journalism. This is especially so as online news portals are leading the crusade against errant power centres.
Two: The party which seeks to claim the legacy of a leader like Jayaprakash Narayan, who fought for press freedom during Emergency, is pursuing this policy. What Indira Gandhi pursued during Emergency — of curbing press freedom using state power — is exactly what the government of today is doing.
The oddity of the matter is in the fact that the law intends to bundle news portals and films, which are pre-censored, as one. News portals, as of today, have not formally agreed to pre-publication censorship. But the heads of various media organisations are quite aware of the consequences of criticising the government.
This is an effort to bring governmental control over the media. It also seeks to deftly bypass the Supreme Court where such matters are pending.
The issue of the Sudarshan TV spewing venom is being used to curtail all media freedom. Initially, the government told the SC that only online news portals need to be controlled. But, why should all organisations bear the brunt of one errant channel?
All imposed control other than self-regulation is censorship. The government argues that the proposals for self-regulation were not satisfactory.
The government seeks to obliterate the fact that freedom of speech and expression and media freedom are built into the ‘unalterable’ basic structure of the Constitution.
There is also an agenda to ‘divide and rule’ here. This law will drive a wedge between traditional media and their digital counterparts. The print media is regulated by the Press Council of India and visual media, by the News Broadcasters Association. The argument that digital media should be controlled by a government agency is ridiculous. We are well aware of the ‘freedom’ enjoyed by All India Radio and Doordarshan run by the government.
The potential of any news outlet controlled by the government is very limited. It will spell the end of all entrepreneurs and mediapersons. Also, it will be the end of the road for a lot of news start-ups which brought a lot of vibrancy to the arena.
Any move to impose government control will cull any brave and feisty journalism that could happen in future. This is sure to deprive our democracy of a critical voice. The government’s move should be understood in the context of the decay in political propriety and righteousness. Any such move should be fought legally as it is authoritarian and anti-constitutional.
At this scale, the next move could be to regulate social media. Wonder when the quietening of free voices would stop.
(The author is a senior journalist and chairman of Asian College of Journalism).