Regulatory setup for media in India: An evaluation of fault lines in media regulation today

The kind of direct governmental regulations for news platforms should be less focused on regulating journalists’ conduct, and more about protecting their speech

In the first part of this analysis, the general regulatory landscape governing news media platforms had been laid out. In this part, an effort will be made to try and identify the fault lines in the approach by the government and what a model for digital media platforms would look like.

Entrenching power through foreign investment laws

As with most industries, there were significant restrictions on foreign investment in newspapers before the liberalisation in 1991. However, even after the liberalisation reforms, and the subsequent opening of markets in the late 1990s, no such investment was allowed in the newspaper industry. This changed to some degree in 2002, where 26 percent FDI was allowed in the newspaper industry.

A parliamentary committee and the newspaper industry opposed these reforms very fiercely. These were variously opposed on the ground that newspapers influence political beliefs, social mores and cultural impulses, therefore intelligence agencies from foreign governments could mislead the people. They claimed that the newspapers were more influential than TV broadcasting and therefore, the opening up of foreign investment could be allowed with them. However, like FDI norms were set up retrospectively for digital news platforms, in 2003 FDI in broadcast news was reduced to 23 percent. This was later increased to 49 percent, but as has been documented elsewhere, all these steps have only led to more and more consolidation in the Indian news market.

It has been noted earlier that there are a large number of prominent digital media platforms that actually have origins in the digital sphere. Only several of them are off-shoots of newspapers or TV media platforms such as The Hindu, NDTV, The Indian Express etc. When the Government passed the FDI norms for digital platforms in 2019, an organisation known as Digital News Publishers Association supported the move, on the ground that this would create a level-playing field in the Indian news industry. What is noteworthy however, is that all of the members of this Association are legacy media businesses. This move was opposed across the board by digital-only platforms such as The Ken, The Wire, Medianama etc.

At the same time, one of the most important concerns that has been raised consistently since the setting up of the First Press Commission in 1955, to reports by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s consultation in 2013, and several more (see here, here and here), is that of the increasing monopolisation and consolidation of news businesses. This issue has hardly received any sincere government effort. There has been very little, if any, regulation on media cross-ownership. At the same time, the government has been enthusiastic about taking steps to deal with the ‘menace’ that newer news businesses cause. The newest FDI regulations in a bid to bring ‘regulation’ on digital news platforms is merely a symptom of this.

This ‘considered silence’ as Vidobh Parathasarathi and Simran Agarwal call it, masks the politics that drives this dichotomy of government regulation. They say that this is not so much the evidence of sloppy regulation, but more the evidence of the government taking steps that threaten the ruling dispensation and harm the commercial interests of the established players. All of these regulatory moves, from the introduction of the Draft Press Registration Bill, to the FDI norms dating back to almost all regulations on the media have almost always led to reduction of diversity in news businesses. This in turn has reduced the choices in content that the audience had access to. This frame would explain the lack of any steps to strengthen the Press Commission of India, or say take action against clearly outrightly bigoted speech that comes from the broadcast media, the starkest example being that of Sudarshan TV.

Developing regulation for better media 

Making efforts to open up foreign investment progressively in the broadcast and newspaper industry could also boost the competition in the area. This would provide impetus to media businesses to provide more nuanced news and better coverage of issues. The clearest evidence for this comes from the range of opinions and the depth which digital news platforms have been able to provide. At the same time, taking strong steps to restrict cross-media consolidation horizontally and vertically are the need of the hour.

Further, steps can be taken to develop a regulatory model for news platforms regardless of medium. The kind of direct governmental regulations for news platforms should be less focused on regulating journalists’ conduct, and more about protecting their speech such as giving them legal protection for conducting sting operations, against trolling etc. These kinds of measures would be beneficial for journalists across the board.

With regards to conduct, providing any regulatory power to the State on framing and enforcing ethical guidelines could have serious repercussions. To that end, strengthening and increasing the scope of a self-regulatory body like the Press Council, to include both broadcast media and digital media, can be a huge step forward. The Press Council, despite its limitations, has historically been an independent and representative body because of the wide-range of interests that are represented in it. It is however, important to ensure that media houses also take the body more seriously. Amendments should be made in the Press Council Act to make it mandatory for the media platforms to give prominent coverage to the Press Council’s press releases and decisions. Simply informing the public about their activities could have a significant effect on the public’s perception and also increase awareness about ethics violations by the media houses.

Another major concern with news platforms, and this is true across the world, is that of revenues. With the duopoly of Facebook-Google taking up the vast quantity of ad-revenue, there is a serious need to rethink the way in which regulations are framed around news platforms. One major example of a government taking proactive steps to protect their news business is that of Australia where the government is pushing for a law that requires Google and Facebook to share royalties with news publishers. The reason for this is that Google and Facebook benefit massively from the presence of news content from these publishers. At the same time, they also are one of the main reasons for the publisher’s dwindling ad revenues.

Without active revenues, a large number of smaller media houses have already shut down, and the Australian government recognising the need for a strong media to democracy wants to ensure that they are finally supported. Although recently Google did threaten to shut its search operations it is unlikely that the Australian government is going to be the last of the countries to take steps to hold Big Tech accountable monetarily or otherwise for the damage that it has caused across the globe.

While the trend of dwindling ad revenues has still not affected India in full-force, it is only a matter of time before it does. Indian regulators and digital media houses must be prepared actively battling for clearer steps being taken in this arena.

The author is a 5th year student at NALSAR, Hyderabad

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