What is it with our officialdom that when it comes to fundamentals of democracy they can’t seem to get it after five decades of experience? Their latest attempt at bullying the citizen is a Bill that the Information & Broadcasting ministry has drafted, ostensibly to restrain media monopolies but in fact to subvert freedom of the press, and therefore of the right to free expression as guaranteed by our fine Constitution drawn up in 1950.
We can only hope that the Bill will never become an Act of parliament. If it does, it will be a giant leap backwards for Indian democracy. That’s because some of the proposed provisions, as reported in the press last week, go well beyond any reasonable goal of checking media monopolies. They will rob you of much of your right to a free flow of information through the media and hand over the loot of power to a bunch of bureaucrats.
Media monopolies can pose a threat to freedom of expression. If just one house of media owners controls an overwhelming majority of print, radio and television outlets in a single market it could effectively manipulate the flow of news, opinions and information to its advantage. It would be not very different from a government monopoly of the media in any non-democratic society. That is where the market steps in by creating opportunities for competition. With multiple options, readers and viewers can choose. By exercising that choice, they can guard their right to a free flow of information, and thus of their right to expression. You don’t like one paper, you drop it to buy another; you don’t like a TV channel, you reach for the remote.
That is why democracies, while guaranteeing freedom of expression, have laws to check monopolies, not just in the media but across the industrial board. Even the United States, which was the first nation in the world to include, in 1791, a clause in its Constitution protecting freedom of the press, has rules to keep media ownership under reasonable check. But they don’t let government servants arbitrarily decide what is good for the citizen to read or see and what is not, which is what the new Bill proposes.
It reportedly empowers officials of the rank of district magistrates and police commissioners to break into newsrooms and confiscate equipment if they feel, or are merely told by any complaining consumer, that a TV station is not putting out programmes “in conformity with the prescribed Content Code”. Thus, pop goes your right to press a button on the remote to decide what you want to see and what you don’t. A government servant, omniscient super-Brahmins that they are, will decide what is good for you, child.
They key word to remember here is “servant”. We need to remind ourselves and our meddlesome minders constantly that officers of the government are there to serve us, not rule over us. We make a big mistake when we refer to bureaucrats and politicians as our “rulers”. They are not. We sent them up there to serve us, within clear boundaries set by the Constitution and the country’s laws. If they deviously try to change those boundaries through the legislative system, where they can use parliamentary majorities to do their job as the late Indira Gandhi did to invoke the Emergency in the mid-70s, we must ask the courts to intervene or use public forums like the press to protest. That is, if they let us.
Under Section 37 of the proposed Bill, an official’s action against a media outlet cannot be challenged in court of law! “No civil court,” it says, “shall have the jurisdiction to entertain any suit or proceedings in respect of any matter which the Authority or the Licensing Authority is empowered by or under this Act to determine.”
Huh? That’s heads they win and tails we lose. Who on earth, or on that wily section of this planet called Shastri Bhavan in New Delhi, thought up this gem of a deal for boosting bureaucratic power? Clever chaps, but perhaps too clever by half.
They should understand the new India. It is a young India and the young are far less likely to cave in to slimy paternalism than the first generation of independent Indians who were a little more ready to sacrifice a right or two for the sake of “national interest”, though, I daresay, even they would prefer a remote in their hands than to have a bumptious bureaucrat tell them what to see. So, keep trying, you blimps, but your days of patronising power are almost over. Better, kill this bill.