Misuse & blockade of TV media

Misuse & blockade of TV media
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Highlights

Madabhushi Sridhar: Misuse & Blockade of TV Media. Telangana journalists unions condemned the ban but the despicable telecast cannot be justified. Banning is denial of viewers’ right to access the two channels. It is also breach of contract between channel and service provider

Telangana journalists unions condemned the ban but the despicable telecast cannot be justified. Banning is denial of viewers’ right to access the two channels. It is also breach of contract between channel and service provider

It is a crime to telecast an insulting programme on TV channel. It is illegal for MSOs to ban the TV channels for such reason. A couple of TV channels in Telangana are both accused and complainants. Hyderabad High Court on June 27 asked the Police and Collectors in Telangana districts to look into this and implement Cable TV Network (Regulation) Act, 1995 (in short Cable TV Act). ABN channel challenged alleging arbitrary blockade.

Legally speaking the cable TV operators have an obligation to transmit the channel and a duty not to telecast offensive programmes. The Cable TV Act regulates the operations of these networks so as to bring uniformity in their operations, avoid undesirable programmes as well as to enable the optimal exploitation of the technology which had the potential of making available to the subscribers a vast pool of information and entertainment. This Act empowered the Central Government to make compel cable operators to transmit any pay channel through addressable systems.

Transparency issues

The Act also requires the cable operators to submit reports on the total number of subscribers, subscription rates, and the number of subscribers for free-to-air and pay channels. The Act authorised the seizure of the cable operators’ equipment if the cable operator violates provisions of the Act. This period of seizure was limited to 10 days and could be extended by an order of the District Judge. Under the Amendment Act 2011, there is no limitation on the period of seizure. Amendment will empower the Central Government to revoke or suspend a cable operator’s registration if he violates the terms of registration. The cable operator has to be given an opportunity to be heard before such penal action. One of the important aims of 2011 Amendment is to bring transparency in the system to benefit all stakeholders, including consumers and cable operators.

To protect consumer interests, law empowered TRAI to specify a package of free-to-air channels, called basic service tier, which shall be offered by every cable operator to the consumers. Law mandates the cable operator to offer channels in the basic service tier on a la carte (individual) basis to consumers at a tariff fixed by TRAI. The Cable operators have to give guarantee for transmission. The Amendment Act 2011 empowered the Central Government to issue notifications requiring all cable operators to transmit any channel, including free-to-air channels, in an encrypted form through a digital addressable system.

As per the Constitution, the state cannot impose such ban which amounts to pre-censorship. Even when the content is cheap, unethical, defamatory and also amounting to breach of privileges, the Constitution has not justified state-sponsored ban on TV channels or publication, while the aggrieved are entitled to pursue the rights and seek legal remedies. These are post-publication legal actions. Prepublication restrictions on freedom of expression are unconstitutional and illegal.

The telecast crime

TV channels or Cable TV networks (or any person) shall not transmit or re-transmit through a cable service any programme unless such programme is in conformity with the prescribed programme code, as per section 5 of Cable Television Network Regulation Act, 1995. If this provision is violated, as per section 16, they can be punished for the first offence, with imprisonment for a term up to two years or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees or with both, and for every subsequent offence, with imprisonment up to five years and with fine which may extend to five thousand rupees. If the telecast violates the programme code, this penalty provision could be invoked. Programme code says: (1) No programme should be carried in the cable service which: (a) Offends against good taste or decency;... (d) Contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half truths;... (i) Criticises, maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country;... (m) Contains visuals or words which reflect a slandering, ironical and snobbish attitude in the portrayal of certain ethnic, linguistic and regional groups. The MSOs also can be prosecuted for these offences along with the channels. However, nowhere in the Act, they gave any authority to MSOs to block the channels. For this telecast crime both cable service provider and TV channel could be liable, but one cannot punish the other.

Telangana journalists unions condemned the ban but the despicable telecast cannot be justified. Banning is denial of viewers’ right to access the two channels. The viewers not connected through digitalised DTH services are not getting these two channels through cables in Telangana. It is also breach of contract between channel and service provider. Legal and Constitutional aspects apart, the tussle has its roots in the political bias of channels against Telangana and its present ruling party.

Nasty telecast against Telangana

The centre of controversy was a programme called ‘bullet news’ in TV9 which castigated MLAs as uneducated, cultureless, incompetent and uncivilised. The legislators were compared to villager who wears only a small piece of cloth to cover below the waist (langoti), drunkards of toddy who never tasted foreign liquor, watched movies in touring talkies, etc.

Swearing in of Telangana legislators was reported with all sorts of idioms and expressions of Telangana accent to insult MLAs. There was not an inch of visual which matches the contemptuous comment. While they relied on a few spelling mistakes of Telangana legislators, TV channels preferred not to expose blunders committed by Andhra legislators some of who were asked to repeat. Anchor of bullet news begins programme with nasty comments such as: “What would happen if you screen a Hollywood movie in a multiplex to someone who is habituated to watching old movies on touring theatre? Sample this!” As the visuals rolled out the background voice says: “Not just their body language, they became laughing stock even at the oath-taking ceremony! Let’s go to the Assembly to watch and enjoy the first day first show!” Then camera shows the visuals inside the House. Commentator behind screen says: Our Telangana MLAs’ story is similar to those sour toddy consumers who are offered best foreign brand liquor!”

Offensive language unleashed: “MLAs were put to severe hardships and confusion gripped them big time once they entered the Assembly wondering where to sit and how, which way to take for wash-rooms, whether to use papers given as tissues, how to switch-off the ACs etc.! .....And a few others – as soon as they stepped inside the Assembly – stared blankly as if they were sent into the space”.

Another derogatory comment was:”What will a loincloth-clad person do when offered with a Laptop? Where he will tuck it? Wonder if they shove it inside their loin or sell it somewhere! But the T-MLAs took them with both hands just as a drunkard would crave for spicy pickle!” TV9 alleges that MLAs would sell it! With this nasty telecast, number one channel TV9 suffered serious loss of credibility facing the anger of Telangana people. There are no takers to their boogie of media freedom while this programme landmark the example of misuse.

(The writer, Information Commissioner, New Delhi, can be reached at professorsridhar@gmail.com)

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