he Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) will now have OTT platforms and online platforms streaming news and current affairs under its purview, thanks to the gazette notification issued on 11 November 2020, duly signed by President Ram Nath Kovind.
So far, the online/digital content space has largely remained self-regulated with no law or autonomous body regulating it. But with this move, the Central Government is likely to change the way we know online content. OTT platforms and online portals are speculating long-term—arguably, damaging—effects.
Online platforms have been able to create content largely free of censorship that enabled them to touch upon sensitive content that would never make it to television or the theatres. But with this amendment to Government of India (Allocation of Business Rules) 1961, that might become a challenge.
The online/digital media, before this gazette, was governed by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MEITY), which looked over the whole digital space without employing regulations. And that’s the reason MIB has been on the lookout to transfer the jurisdiction of online content from MEITY to itself since earlier this year, as digital media is the only unregulated one out of the five media.
“First came the print media, so we had the Press Council of India. Then we had All India Radio, there we had a different structure. FM radio is not permitted to air news other than that of AIR. Television developed on a different line altogether. In TV there is no pre-censorship, there is a regulatory structure that comes in after content has aired. Films require prior certification from the CBFC. For five different media, four are having different regulatory practices; they are either self-regulated, pre-regulated, post-regulated, and one of them [OTT] is unregulated,” Amit Khare, the secretary of the Ministry of I&B noted.
The tussle, rife with debates and disagreements, has been on since 2018. The following Twitter thread by Nikhil Pahwa, the founder of MediaNama, encompasses the timeline with context.
One of the important points that differentiate broadcasting from online streaming, while also making it strange for the digital content to come under MIB’s domain is well summarised by Nikhil here:
Seemingly triggered by the ongoing dialogue since 2018, entities in their own capacity began taking actions. For instance, in January 2019, eight video streaming services together made a self-regulatory code. Five types of content were prohibited, according to this report by The Hindu. The government refused to accept it.
A further iteration of the same code was signed on 5 February 2020, which was signed by just four entities (out of the previous set of signatories) at the Internet and Mobile Association of India’s (IAMAI) annual digital summit.
While OTT platforms were trying to band together, in late October 2020, 11 Indian digital news organisations joined hands under a group called Digipub News India Foundation. The 11 signatories are Alt News, Article 14, Boomlive, Cobrapost, HW News, Newsclick, Newslaundry, Scroll.in, News Minute, The Quint and The Wire. According to their press release, “DIGIPUB News India Foundation has been created to represent, amplify and evolve best practices to build a robust digital news ecology that is truly world-class, independent and upholds the highest standards of journalism,” reported The Wire.
Two weeks after Digipub is formalised, Central Government’s gazette notification takes a step further towards regulating online news organisations. This is Digipub’s statement in response to the government’s new rule:
After all these steps, this is what Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah tweeted on 16 November 2020, on National Press Day:
With a lot at stake, dissent between stakeholders, and contradictory statements by the government and its officials, it’s a tricky situation. Like always, we guess, we’ll have to wait and watch.