A Bill and its meaning

Published : Jun 01, 2012 00:00 IST

By all outward appearances, the controversial Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill, 2012, has been shelved. The Congress leadership has already distanced itself from the contents of the Bill, stating that it was solely advanced by Meenakshi Natarajan, the party's Lok Sabha member from Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh. The first-time MP, who is a close aide of party general secretary Rahul Gandhi, refused to comment on the Bill she had drafted, maintaining that unless the Bill was introduced in Parliament there was no point in discussing its details. The MP had presented the Bill to the authorities concerned in Parliament for circulation but was not present in the House when it was her turn to introduce it formally. Even in the context of this apparent backtracking, the Bill does signify the mindset of a section of the political class, particularly within the Congress, towards issues relating to the freedom of the press.

The 14-page draft circulated by the MP is nothing short of a guidebook to ban the rights of the media and impose censorship by other means. The basic thrust of the Bill is “to provide for the constitution of the Print and Electronic Media Regulation Authority with a view to lay down standards to be followed by the print and electronic media and to establish credible and expedient mechanism for investigating suo motu or into complaints by individuals against print and electronic media, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”.

Why does Meenakshi Natarajan feel that such an authority is the need of the hour? She argues in the statement of objects and reasons of the Bill that the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution comes with the caveat of “reasonable restrictions”. She expounds: “In various instances, that while the print and electronic media has taken shelter for reporting and misreporting under this Article, it has forgotten the caveat attached to this right.” She argues that the media have been unable to self-regulate their functioning and that the coverage of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks was conducted in a way that compromised the police operation. “While the freedom of speech and expression has to be respected, there appears no other option but to regulate the print and electronic media and impose on it certain crucial reasonable restrictions, which are needed for the purpose of protecting national interest.”

It is for this purpose that the proposed Bill seeks to set up a media regulatory authority with a set of sweeping powers. The powers of the authority, as conceived in the Bill, include “imposing a ban” or “suspending” coverage of an event or incident that “may pose a threat to national security from foreign or internal sources”. The authority would have the power to impose a fine of up to Rs.50 lakh, suspend a media organisation's operations for up to 11 months, and recommend cancellation of its licence.

The authority would also to have the power to “search and seize” any document “kept secretly at some secluded place” and no civil court would have jurisdiction over any matter that the authority is empowered to determine. In a shocking proposition in chapter 7 of the Bill, under the head “Miscellaneous”, the MP literally subverts the Right to Information Act (RTI ), considered to be one of the path-breaking laws enacted by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in its first innings. The clause states:

“Notwithstanding anything contained in the Right to Information Act, 2005, or any other law for the time being in force, all documents and records of proceedings related to a complaint, inquiry and investigation shall not be disclosed to any person in any proceeding except as directed by the authority.”

Interestingly, the regulatory authority would be chosen by, among others, the Information and Broadcasting Minister and three government nominees. Again, there is nothing new in the mention of standards that the authority is supposed to lay down. All the 40-odd points that the Bill has listed conform to standards already existing for the media through a number of laws and regulations. The standards include “prohibition of reporting of any news item based in unverified and dubious material”, “prohibition of publication or broadcast of any material that is defamatory”, prohibition of reporting news which is obscene or “offensive”, clear segregation of opinion from facts, exercising extreme caution while reporting terrorist attacks or communal riots, avoiding witch-hunt or media trial of the accused or their associates or their family members, treating a case fairly and in an impartial manner, and so on.

It is to protect and maintain these normal standards that the Bill seeks to invoke an authority with draconian and exceptional powers.

The Congress, while distancing itself from the Bill, took special care to clarify that although the MP had worked closely for many years with Rahul Gandhi, he had no role in the framing of the Bill. “The Bill was based on her views. These are not the views of Rahul Gandhi. Neither are these his views nor has she got his consent for this Bill,” Congress media department chairman Janardan Dwivedi said. Privately, many Congress MPs criticised the provisions of the Bill as anti-democratic.

On her part, Meenakshi Natarajan told Frontline that unless she actually introduced the Bill, even she could not be credited or arraigned for its provisions. “An MP is entitled to alter a draft or incorporate amendments even as the Bill is discussed or even when it is passed. A draft, by itself, is not the final word,” a close associate of the MP said.

It is not clear whether Meenakshi Natarajan will make some changes to the Bill in the wake of the controversy it has kicked up and bring it back for presentation. As things stand now, this seems unlikely. There is a stream of opinion, particularly within the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), that the Bill was actually a feeler floated by sections of the Congress leadership to test the waters to evolve a piece of anti-media legislation. According to it, after all, since the 1970s Parliament has not passed a private member's Bill.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

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