New Delhi — The Indian government has amended its rules to bring streaming platforms and digital news outlets under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which already regulates television programs and movie, raising concerns about the potential for censorship.
Under the new notification, issued on Nov. 9, online streaming platforms will be regulated by the ministry, while user-generated content on social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube will still be overseen by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
The cabinet has now moved films, audio-visual programmes, news and current affairs available online from the technology ministry to the information and broadcasting ministry. Digital firms have self-regulated their own content over the years. This shift, in effect, pushes the monitoring approach from technical matters to content-specific issues.
“These rules may be called the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Three Hundred and Fifty-Seventh Amendment Rules, 2020. They shall come into force at once,” the Secretariat states in the gazette notification.
Prakash Javedkar, the minister for Information and Broadcasting, had asked the online streaming industry in March to finalize a code of conduct and create an adjudicatory authority within 100 days. After the platforms could not reach a consensus, the ministry in July proposed taking over regulation of online content from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
Seventeen streaming platforms signed on to a Universal Self-Regulation Code for OCCPs (Online Curated Content Providers) that set guidelines for age classification, content description and access-control tools, but the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting rejected the code.
“The government couldn’t come to terms with the self-regulation code agreed upon by the industry and wanted a proper channelization of the soft power that India’s entertainment sector serves as, hence the move,” said Girish Johar, a film producer and trade analyst.
The move has raised concerns among many in the industry.
“This decision is an extension of the government’s initiative to reinstate the cultural ideology that was seen getting disturbed due to the unregulated content on OTT (Over The Top) platforms,” said Sajjan Kumar, professor of media studies and political science at Symbiosis International University in Pune. OTT platforms include movies, TV, and other long and short-form content.
“The groups who demanded OTT content regulation are the same who claim to protect the moral fabric of the society whenever a controversial issue arises. They have vested interests. We also need to see how the move will impact the financial liabilities of the new players who had only started getting into the game.
“Third, do we expect a compromise in the realm of creative freedom for creators? The unregulated realm … will now be a common entity under the surveillance of society’s moral brigade and the space for creativity is bound to shrink.”
Loss of creative freedom due to censorship has been a concern for Indian directors and producers opting for unconventional storylines.
“The government’s move is a bit of a letdown for creators as they will lose the sharp teeth they had until now. Creators will now grow mindful and restrict the blatant use of obscenity, abusive language, violence that we have seen for the last few years,” said Johar.
Subscriptions to India’s streaming platforms have increased during the pandemic, as have debates about their content. Web series such as “Ghoul,” “Sacred Games” and “Patallok,” among others, were declared “anti-Hindu” by a few conservative and right-wing organizations. In another example, the Indian Air Force objected to “Gunjan Saxena,” a Netflix movie featuring lead actor Jahnvi Kapoor, claiming it showed the air force in a bad light.
Meanwhile, the news industry awaits the next set of guidelines from the government. Twitter has been abuzz with dissent from the liberal journalism fraternity.
Kumar, for his part, thinks that monitoring of online news platforms might help reduce the propagation of fake news, said to be rampant as people seek news from various platforms.
But, monitoring streaming content would be more difficult than monitoring news platforms, Johar said.
“It is not practically feasible to regulate or censor the vast amount of content that goes up on streaming platforms. At times the local content you watch on the platforms gets uploaded from outside India. So, we might see the government bring in a strict code of conduct that creators will have to abide by,” Johar said.
Currently, print and TV news have self-regulatory bodies like the Press Council and the News Broadcasters Association. Films in India have been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification. Commercials follow guidelines laid down by the Advertising Standards Council, and TV programming came under the ambit of the Cable Networks Regulation Act.
Last month the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Cabinet and the Internet and Mobile Association of India, on a petition to regulate streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.
“We have upgraded our viewing patterns with time. Why shouldn’t the law be upgraded then?” Satyam Singh Rajput told Zenger News. Rajput has sought the regulation of online media streaming platforms and a direction to companies to remove legally restricted content through a petition in the Supreme Court.
“I filed the petition on four grounds — regulation, censorship, licensing, and content. There have been several instances of riots in India due to false propaganda pushed by movie makers. So, there is a dire need for censorship on the OTT content to ensure law and order in the state.”
(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judy Isacoff)