Cable TV Act: Smells like Section 66A
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Cable TV Act: Smells like Section 66A

Why do the vague and anti-free speech Cable TV Rules still have a place in a democracy?

By Arunabh Saikia

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It is abundantly clear that the Indian politician has a penchant for supporting legislations that curb freedom of expression. After all, both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party stonewalled attempts to get rid of Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act.   

The good news is the Supreme Court, in spite of several sly attempts to keep the Act, struck it down. The bad news, though, is that several other laws, strikingly similar to Section 66 A, and utterly anti-democratic in spirit, continue to exist – and even be used.

Last week, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry invoked one of them — the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act – to hit out at three news channels.  

To be precise, the government used the Cable Television Network Rules, framed under the Act. According to these rules, there are as many as 14 broad grounds, which make a programme unfit for broadcast on a cable network (the government in this case used only three of them).  Which means the government can pull up a channel any time if it thinks it has aired a programme that:

  • is against good taste or decency;
  • contains criticism of friendly countries
  • contains attack on religions or communities or visuals or words contemptuous of religious groups or which promote communal attitudes
  • contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half truths
  • is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which promote anti-national attitudes.
  • contains anything amounting to contempt of court
  • contains aspersions against the integrity of the President and Judiciary;
  • contains anything affecting the integrity of the Nation;
  • criticises, maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country
  • encourages superstition or blind belief;
  • denigrates women through the depiction in any manner of the figure of a woman, her form or body or any part thereof in such a way as to have the effect of being indecent, or derogatory to women, or is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals
  • denigrates children
  • contains visuals or words which reflect a slandering, ironical and snobbish attitude in the portrayal of certain ethnic, linguistic and regional groups
  • contravenes the provisions of the Cinematograph Act, 1952
  • is not suitable for unrestricted public exhibition

There are two direct takeaways from the list. First, the day these rules are strictly enforced, every television media company in India will shut shop. There will be nothing to air on TV.

Second, some of the clauses are so vague that they make the government’s now-infamous list of 857 “porn” websites well though-out.  Consider the first point in the list: Programmes that are “against good taste or decency”.  It is unlikely that even Amit Shah and Narendra Modi would agree on what constitutes “good taste”.  Therefore, to use “good taste” as a yardstick to decide television programming in a country of 1.2 billion people is not the brightest of ideas.

The absurdity doesn’t end there. Most clauses in the list are highly ambiguous – and can be exploited to suit the government’s agenda.  

Remember Section 66 A, and people taking “offence” all the time?  Well, if you are cringing at even the thought of it, be warned that this one is equally problematic. Like 66 A, it is anti-free speech by design – and a potential tool for the government to muzzle dissenting voices.  

The Economic Times report, which reveals the role of BJP leader GVL Narasimha Rao behind the notices to the three channels, suggests an ulterior motive on the government’s part. The idea, it seems, was to send a message to channels that are perceived as less-than-charitable to the dispensation.

This is the second instance in less than two months that the government has used this Act. In June, the government had invoked another Section of the Act to deny security clearance to 33 channels of the Sun group run by the Maran family. Even then, there were murmurs of it acting more out of political vindictiveness than legitimate reasons. The Section used – 20(2) of the Act – lets the central government suspend broadcast of a TV channel if it thinks it is “necessary or expedient” in the interest of the “security of India”.

The government had contended that the pending criminal cases against the owners of the channels amounted to a threat against the “economic security” of the country.

Incidentally, the government reprimanded All India Radio for reporting on the Editors’ Guild’s criticism of the notices. Such attempts to censor a state-run media organisation from covering anything even remotely negative about it make the government’s action even more suspect. If the government indeed believes that the serving of the notices under the Act was justified, why be so sensitive to criticism?   

By the looks of it, the Act could well turn out to be the television counterpart of Section 66 A.  The government’s overzealousness to invoke it and muzzle any criticism of its use only adds to the suspicion.  The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act in its current form, like Section 66, is an Act that undermines freedom of expression – it has no place in a decent democracy.

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