Tuesday, July 23, 2013

TRAI considers cross media regulation

As talk in India turns to media plurality and regulation, attention is turning to murky ownership structures and monopolistic practices. But some see the government’s moves as attempts to muzzle the press.

In May 2012, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India got a new boss – a retired bureaucrat named Rahul Khullar, who has the unenviable job of not just sorting out 2011’s 2G scam that hit Indian telecom sector hard, but also trying to ensure that the growth of the Indian media is “plural and diverse”.

In what has become a controversial interview, Khullar suggested bringing regulation to control cross-media ownership in India, suggesting that a single entity should be restricted to owning only one or two types of media carriage. “We are not talking about content but carriage.” he said in an interview to The Hindu.

India’s largest media houses, including Sun TV, Star India and the Essel Group, own multiple media platforms. In fact some media houses are so huge, with complicated and largely hidden ownership structures, that it can be unclear who really owns the company. The Indian media has been covering this subject heavily since the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting asked channels to disclose their equity structures as a results of the Saradha scam in West Bengal where businessmen were running news channels at the behest of politicians. Independent news portals have been trying to disclose ownership details on their sites, revealing that many politicians partly own the news channels/papers that report on them, as do big industrial houses, mostly unknown to citizens.

Khullar’s suggestion has been drawn from telecom regulator TRAI’s recent consultation paper on cross media ownership which has suggested that media houses investing in all forms — television, print, and radio — has led to “horizontal integration,” and asked whether there ought to be safeguards to curb this monopolistic growth. The lack of these checks, it believes, is the reason why broadcasters have become “politically backed entities for distribution of their channels in that region.”

Overwhelmingly, the media industry has reacted negatively at the suggestion of being regulated. In an passionate argument, the Times of India’s Executive Editor, suggests that this latest move by TRAI is part of a larger play by the government of India to muzzle the media following its active role in exposing many scams in the last few years – some which have ended with cabinet ministers in jail. Drawing a line between regulating ownership and accountability, the article points out that India has over 80,000 plus publications and 800 channels, thereby showing extreme plurality already.

Others, such as the opinionated online magazine Firspost – owned by Network18 which is partly funded by the corporate giant, Reliance Group – has argued against this move from a media freedom point of view. It argues that corporate houses have the constitutional right to own media houses and that, “one reason why corporate houses enter the picture relates to the non-viability of many traditional media houses. If they didn’t bankroll the media, many journalists would lose their jobs. So to label corporates as villains when they are actually white knights in some cases is wrong.”

In another interview with Mint, the TRAI chairman clarified that, “in many countries you have absolute bans. Some people just cannot own a newspaper, for instance, an advertising agency cannot own a newspaper. There are pure entry issues. Then there are safeguards—like the 2×3 rule. In virtually all jurisdictions, if you own a newspaper and a TV station, you cannot own radio stations.”
However, the most compelling argument against this suggestion, made by Firstpost, but also others, is the question of the internet; that TV and print are fast merging with the internet, and in that in reality, it would be tough to restrict media ownership to only two platforms. While TRAI has no ready answers, its consultation paper on cross media ownership stipulates that any future rules on the subject must include broadcasting, print and new media.

At the same time, the crux of the matter — “It is, therefore, important that an arm‘s length distance is ensured between the media and organs of governance, political institutions and other entities which have a profound sway over public opinion” – is addressed in the paper, by suggesting that political bodies, religious bodies, government departments and ministries, urban and local bodies and state governments should not be permitted to enter the business of broadcasting and/or distribution of TV channels.

There can be no doubt that in India, corporate and political interests have invested heavily in the media. The Economist carried a story in June 2013 about the condition of TV news in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, stating – “every large party in the state now has an affiliated station, often owned or co-owned by the party leader’s followers or relatives.” It talks of the Sun Group, a Chennai-based conglomerate with 32 TV channels and 45 radio stations. Sun, which is run by former Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi’s grand-nephew, and also owns one of the more lucrative parts of the television industry—a cable-distribution network. This is exactly the kind of media monopoly TRAI is looking to break, or at the very least, limit.

However, is the way forward to diverse news to limit the growth of media empires, even if they do tend to be monopolistic? How does the state broadcaster, both over TV and radio, fit into this model? Is it better to focus on regulating ownership or content to ensure citizens get a plurality of voices? There is already a parallel debate on media regulation in the country to ensure that the content reaching Indians is not paid for by vested interests and is clearly identified when it is. And finally, is TRAI’s solution take away corporate control and hand it over to the State?

These are questions India must grapple with very carefully, if it aims to retain press freedom – already perilously at 140 on the Press Freedom Index, 2013.


Friday, July 12, 2013

On the ground: In New Delhi

(This is a chapter from the latest Index on Censorship magazine, published by Sage. Links below)

From moral policing to commercialism, India has its fair share of free expression dilemmas. Mahima Kaul reports on the challenges faced by journalists, protesters and artists

As India marks its 66th year as the world’s largest democracy, it must pay more attention to freedoms it accords its citizens – particularly beyond the ballot box. Increasingly, the issue of freedom of expression, or the lack of it, has often fallen under the radar due to a range of other concerns, from corruption to poverty to communal clashes. But with a steadily growing middle class and some recent high profile cases commanding international attention, it’s clear that free expression in India is becoming increasingly important for journalists and activists, as well as for those simply wanting to voice their opinions publicly. 

The first challenge lies within the media industry itself, and the direct threat it poses to journalists. In 2012, media watchdog website the Hoot reported that 39 journalists had been either assaulted, harassed or threatened that year; five were killed. One journalist was reporting on the activities of Hindu fundamentalist groups when he was attacked, while another was shot dead covering a rape protest in the state of Manipur. Charges of sedition have been levied against journalists who upset powerful politicians and, most famously, against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who lampooned corrupt politicians in a local paper. 

However, a new trend has emerged, that of targeting the ordinary social media user who posts comments that criticise or voice active opposition to the powers that be. Indian civil society has been up in arms about the use of the loosely-worded Section 66A of the Information Technology Act (2000), which has made it possible for citizens to face arrests for status updates and even ‘liking’ someone else’s status. 

Recently, the news media has tended to function less like a watchdog of democracy and more like a commercial vehicle. The diffusion of paid news into the bloodstream of the media has made it virtually impossible for the average person to distinguish between planted stories and actual reporting. The malaise is so deep that the Election Commission of India monitors state and national elections to ensure that advertisements are clearly marked as such. In the case of television, most news channels serving communities outside of the bigger cities opt for hours of panel discussions instead of actual reporting of facts, citing, as an editor once put it, ‘the tyranny of distance’ as the reason. 

The Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) of India is now also looking to reform the way Television Rating Points (TRPs) are measured in the country, as they feel the current system lacks credibility and accuracy. This, they hope, will lead to a better idea of what people are actually watching in India. TRAI has also recently enforced a long-ignored guideline stipulating that channels (including news channels) can only broadcast up to 12 minutes of advertising per hour. At the moment, advertisements can exceed 30 minutes within an hour’s worth of broadcasting, leading to an imbalanced media delivering customers to advertisers instead of actually delivering impartial news to citizens. Unsurprisingly perhaps, broadcasters insist they need the advertising, as it is their main source of revenue. 

Another challenge to free expression in India is disingenuous content, which limits honest and open discourse. Media observers often harshly criticise the Indian media for purposely putting forth ‘rabble rousing’ content to attract viewers. This also means that any moderate voices in these discussions are drowned out for the sake of ‘good’ TV. This trend was obvious in the aftermath of the December 2012 New Delhi rape case, which received international attention. People around the country were shocked and horrified after a young woman was gang raped on a privately-operated bus and left to die of her horrific injuries; civil society activists organised massive street protests and demanded stricter laws to protect women. News anchors on national news channels such as Times Now and Headlines Today gave prominent screen time to those who proposed death or castration as punishment for the alleged rapists, drowning out other voices that called for reform and caution against taking extreme positions. 

But one of the biggest challenges to free expression in India is society at large. There is a long, well-established tradition of moral policing for political gain. Fringe political parties across the country pick up on and adopt a number of issues, especially westernisation and modernisation, as attention-seeking tools to garner support. Shops selling Valentine’s Day cards or bars serving alcohol to young people, and even young couples enjoying a lazy afternoon in a public park, are routinely harassed by organised mobs. Some journalists, like the Mangalore-based Naveen Soorinje, have spoken out about how the media is often complicit in this vigilantism, colouring their stories in order to side with moral policing. One headline praised groups engaged in ‘rescuing’ smokers from dingy bars. 

Index has previously reported on village authorities banning women from using mobile phones on similar grounds, giving the reason that modernisation is essentially linked to immoral activities. The logic is shared by many, including a former minister who supported the move, saying, ‘What are the girls missing without mobile phones? Did our mothers and sisters die without mobiles?’ The attitude betrays an inherent suspicion of the right to freely express oneself, even over the phone.
Some Indian politicians give ample space to fringe groups, calling for censorship of books, fine art and films. The most famous example of this sort of bowing to pressure was the case of the Jaipur Literary Festival, where Salman Rushdie cancelled his appearance in 2012 because the state government could not guarantee his safety. Countless other art shows, films and books have been targeted by political groups, while the governments of the day have preferred to pander to them by cancelling events rather than vowing to keep the artists safe. For example, Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues was cancelled in Mumbai in 2012 after groups protested against its adult content.
If the precious right of freedom of expression is not protected, the ultimate fallout is self-censorship. Many people, including filmmaker Ashvin Kumar, have spoken about how artists often prefer to play it safe rather than risk being targeted for challenging the status quo. This is a disturbing thought, and certainly signifies how vulnerable people feel in India. 

In a country that suffers from a range of ongoing political, social and cultural challenges, free expression is often seen as an unnecessary indulgence. But, in recent years, with some parts of the media catering specifically to the growing middle class – a group of people that, in many ways, does not have to deal with some of the problems found at other levels of society – free speech has emerged as a significant and prominent concern, a right that must be protected. Going forward, it is crucial that both the Indian government and the media find a balance between their political and financial interests and the right to free expression. 

Read the full magazine here: http://ioc.sagepub.com/content/current

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Is India about to gets its own PRISM?

Two surveillance entities are being set up to monitor Indian citizens’ communications, Mahima Kaul writes

 The first new system is the Central Monitoring System (CMS) that will be used by tax authorities and the National Investigation Agency to track phone calls, texts and emails to fight terror related crimes.

The second, the National Cyber Coordination Centre (NCCC), will be used by a host of intelligence agencies including the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), the National Technical Research Organization (NTRO), the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Army, Navy  and Air Force, and the Department of Telecommunications to monitor all online activities to fight cyber crime.

As a result, there is increasing debate in India about how security concerns, through mass surveillance of all communication channels, are constantly coming head-to-head with the right to privacy. The reality is that governments do need to build some capacity to monitor different platforms as crime and terror increasingly exploit them. However, unless there are solid privacy safeguards, these mass surveillance systems can be misused with little recourse for the citizens. Protecting only the larger state, but not the individuals who make up that state is no way for a democratic country to function.

The reality is that banks, traffic, hospitals, nuclear and chemical plants and communication grids could be simultaneously attacked, rendering a country helpless. Technology plays such a central space in crime and terror that when Indian authorities were not able to decrypt BlackBerry technologies used by terrorists during the 2008 Mumbai attack, it ultimately led to the Indian government pressuring Research in Motion, the group that makes BlackBerry, to hand over its encryption keys to India

The scope of cyber crime keeps changing and the government is looking to increase its capacity to respond to these challenges beyond existing frameworks like CERT-IN and cyber crime cells run by the police. Therefore, NCCC and CMS have been set up to help keep abreast of criminal online.

However, this gigantic effort, even if it is conducted with a view to national security, cannot be implemented outside regulatory frameworks. The Indian constitution provides fundamental rights to its citizens. Article 21 guarantees that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. Logic dictates then, that clear policy and regulatory frameworks be set up to both protect the citizen’s right to privacy and also guide the security apparatus of the country.

To this end, the Information Technology Amendment Act, 2008, does allow for surveillance and data gathering. Section 69B of that act gives the government the authority to “monitor and collect traffic data or information through any computer resource for cyber security.” 

However, security agencies have been questioned about spying on individuals without following proper procedure in the past. One the one hand, citizens are questioning the legal frameworks which have guided the creation of surveillance bodies like CMS, and on the other, the protection accorded to citizens.

India’s minister of state for Information Technology, Milind Deora, has stated that CMS is better for privacy, as it allows the state to directly intercept citizen’s communications, rather than relying on private operators.

However, legal expert Bhairav Acharya has argued that this position is disingenuous and incorrect, stating that by “bypassing private players to enable direct state access to private communications will preclude leaks and, thereby remove from public knowledge the fact of surveillance.”

In fact, it only reinforces the fact that citizens might never know when their personal information is being recorded and used, and why.

Privacy is at the forefront of this debate. India’s Planning Commission put together a “Group of Experts on Privacy” to produce recommendations on privacy protection and to ensure that the country’s privacy laws keep up the pace with laws drafted in other jurisdictions.
The report proposed that any legislation passed by Parliament be based on nine points, which include the concepts of notice, choice and consent, accountability and purpose limitation.

The government of India has now indicated that it will table a privacy law in the next session of Parliament. Even though the details are not yet public, think-tanks such as the Centre for Internet and Society have made a few guesses about what it could entail. They have concluded that privacy won’t be made a fundamental right, but citizens may be given a statutory right to privacy. 

Privacy law is not just essential for preventing abuses. It is also needed for schemes that collect large amounts of personal data, such as India’s Unique Identification Number (UID) project. The UID is a large database of biometric data and other sensitive information, which could have a devastating effect if abused or leaked. To their credit, the Group of Experts on Privacy have advised the government to consider safeguards like informing citizens when their data is breached, changes in privacy policies, and requiring written consent from citizens before their data is shared with anyone.

Ultimately, India’s government should have had a privacy law in place well before it started rolling out surveillance agencies. The only way to move forward is to put measures in place to ensure that India’s surveillance system protects citizens rather than exploiting them.