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‘Deterrents in self-regulation of news channels inadequate’

The apex court’s recent observation on the need for stronger self-regulation of news broadcasting has raised concerns about the adequacy of the ₹1 lakh penalty for potentially harmful coverage, said experts.

While a section of industry executives said it was long due considering the frequent disharmony caused by television news coverage, legal experts said it might lead to establishment of an independent central authority to evaluate news content and penalize channel directors and promoters.

“The (Supreme Court) statement is related to the hearing pertaining to an appeal filed by the News Broadcasters and Digital Association (NBDA) against a Bombay high court (HC) decision. The HC’s observation is that since self-regulation mechanisms of news channels lack statutory recognition, they do not have any legal sanctity,” said Mehak Khanna, partner at Khaitan and Khaitan.

“Given that neither the Centre nor a statutory agency has any control on the operations of the channels, liabilities and penal consequences outlined in the self-regulatory mechanisms are not sufficient and do not act as deterrents considering the extent of damage and profits the news organizations make,” she added.

According to legal experts, since existing penal actions are inadequate for those not complying with the self-regulatory norms, other mechanisms which may act as warnings or deterrents can be incorporated, such as establishing an independent central authority or agency to monitor and assess the content shown by news channels. The authority may also impose fines and penalties in the proportion of profits made by the channels compared to existing fine of just ₹1 lakh, they added.

This might encourage bodies like the NBDA to adopt robust codes of conduct and ensure adequate compliance and punishment for directors and promoters, legal experts said.

News channels should also be mandated to display disclaimers for content they are not sure about, they added.

Manmeet Kaur, principal associate, Karanjawala and Co., said the Bombay HC in 2021 had expressed concern over a media trial on Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, and observed that any reportage has to be in accordance with journalistic standards and ethics, else a media house must be charged with contempt of court. The court accordingly issued guidelines for reporting in cases of suicide. “The guidelines which may be issued by the court or the directions to strengthen the NBDA guidelines may take away the present mechanism,” Kaur added.

A senior news channel executive said the SC’s observation should’ve come earlier considering the kind of angst and disharmony many news channels create.

“There should be both financial and legal penalties because nothing else rattles broadcasters. It should be along the lines of the strict guidelines in the US and the UK,” he added.

However, another executive said the ongoing discussions are judicial manoeuvrings and are not likely to translate into concrete policies. “Most complaints on our websites are by the government, not the public,” the person added.

However, Ayan Sharma, policy and advocacy head at BTG Legal, pointed out that the issue is that the NBDA is not the only association representing news channels. The News Broadcasters Federation also represents the interests of around 300 news channels.

“There should be a unified stance by all channels that protects the self-regulatory mechanism in place, and defends freedom of expression by opposing too much state or governmental oversight, but balances this freedom by accepting a more enhanced enforcement structure with graded penalties based on profit per show,” Sharma said. LiveMint

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