I&B Ministry To Regulate OTT Content And News Portals: Can Free Speech Survive Censorship?

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The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has notified the media that digital content on over-the-top (OTT) streaming websites and news sites will henceforth come under its regulation. Quashing the idea of a self-regulation policy for online platforms, the I&B ministry will now intervene with controls to regulate and censor content. What does this reform imply for you and me? It means that everything we are currently consuming online – from films, to web series, to even the daily news headlines – comes under the purview of the government, which will now potentially decide what we watch.

According to reports, this policy will be applicable to the current mainstream streaming channels, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, ALTBalaji, MX Player, etc. As a strong advocate of free speech and zero censorship, this news carries an air of dread for me. Because with central authorities keeping a watch on what we watch online, it seems like we’re headed towards an infringement on both those fronts. This, despite the ministry’s claim that they have introduced this measure to ensure a proper “code of ethics” online. Actually, not despite. Precisely because of.

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Regulation To Ensure Ethics, But Who Decides What’s Ethical?

Ethics is a subjective theoretical area that is still largely grey. Who decides? How much is appropriate? What’s right? While the common individual still grapples with these dilemmas, our central authorities seem to have found the answers to these existential questions. And because they have, they find it “ethical” to impose a blanket measure on audiences, talking down to us as a condescending parent does to their child who is seemingly too unintelligent to take these decisions independently.

But do we need someone giving us a warped instruction about how “sex scenes are bad, but item songs are good”? Where is the ethical understanding in these matters even stemming from? As a woman, I’m okay watching a sex scene but abhor watching an item number that sexualises women. So does that mean my ethics are false or wrong? Or that someone who believes the inverse of what I do is a more ethical person than I am?

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Subjective ideas such as these must always be open to discussion. But reformation should never be found down the road of censorship. Opening the dialogue is a better bet towards a proper representation of women, queers, or other oppressed communities. Censorship, on the other hand, could set a dangerous precedent that opens the floodgates to invite stealthier, more stringent, and more frequent rules commanding what we watch.

The Dangerous Precedent Online Regulation Sets

The I&B ministry’s new measure isn’t novel, however. In India, central mechanisms of regulation have been in place for quite some time now. The Central Board of Film Certification, under its certification powers alone, has long exercised the freedom to censor, ban, and cut films/scenes that its members – fellow human beings, each with their own subjective ideologies, mind you – don’t approve of. An RTI response reveals that 793 films have been banned by CBFC in 16 years.

While the concept of censorship by itself is problematic, it becomes doubly (rather quadruply) thorny with the I&B ministry spilling it over onto the online digital space. The internet, as a vast crockpot of cultures, subcultures, and anti-cultures, is perhaps the most liberated space to have ever existed. And in its promotion, OTT streaming platforms take much of the pie. On Netflix, for instance, an erotic film like 365 Days can exist alongside the chaste wonder that is Hum Saath Saath Hain with alarming ease. Or on Amazon Prime, musical web-series Bandish Bandits sit side-by-side with the gruff Kaleen Bhaiya from Mirzapur. The range is fantastic, the censorship minimal.

In this land of endless treats, does the audience really want a Big Brother-like authority standing with a cane above our heads? Peering over our shoulders to tell us what to watch? If a scene of sexual abuse on Mirzapur disturbs me, I’m free to forward it, or better, move on to the next show on my list. What I value ultimately is the freedom to choose, even though I may later argue for a more rightful representation of women on screen.

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Will Online News Channels Become Biased?

Central regulations on the news space are a whole different ballgame. Official bodies already overlook print and broadcast in real-time, namely Press Council of India (PCI) and News Broadcasters Association (NBA) respectively.

But with the I&B ministry’s entry into the online space – where news portals have endless time and space to scrutinise, oppose, and incisively react to events – what kind of consequences will prevail? Will the centre take the liberty to object to news items upon their own will, if it doesn’t align with their narrative? Under pressure, will media portals that explore a news story from every unbiased angle be compelled to take biased stances? Will independent media become more polarised?

These are all projections. No one can say for sure what the new I&B reform will entail until it is actually put to practice. But even at the outset, it raises some questions. Will people not have agency over their own small screens anymore? Would we not have jurisdiction even over the OTT services we pay for? The idea alone leaves a sense of foreboding.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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