Ban & seize: Congress MP Bill out to gag media

FP
The private member's Bill that Rahul Gandhi's close aide and Congress MP Meenakshi Natarajan was scheduled to introduce in Parliament last week lays down a draconian set of rules clearly aimed to gag and threaten the media in the name of "protecting national interest".

Called the Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill, 2012, it provides for a media regulatory authority part selected by the I&B minister and three government nominees with a sweeping set of powers that 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 ban, the 14-page Bill says, shall be "sanctioned and reviewed in writing" on a day-to-day basis "as long as the threat persists".

The Authority has the power to impose a fine of up to Rs 50 lakh, suspending a media organisation's operations for up to 11 months, and recommending the cancellation of its licence.

According to the Bill, this Authority is exempt from the Right to Information Act and can even order the search and seizure of documents or records of a media organisation.

The Bill lays down standards which it says the media "must" follow. These include: "prohibition of reporting any news item based on unverified and dubious material"; "exercising due care while reporting news items related to judiciary and legislature,"; clearly segregating "opinion from facts,"; "maintaining complete transparency and impartiality in internal functioning" and "prohibition of reporting news items which are obscene, vulgar or offensive."

It also lays down that the electronic media shall not "showcase clippings from entertainment programmes or from those aired on entertainment channels for more than 15 minutes of its daily broadcast time."

The Bill, which the Mandsaur MP was supposed to bring on April 27 but did not, says that "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".

The seven-member Authority, which would have the powers of a civil court, would comprise a chairman who is a former Chief Justice of India or a Supreme Court judge, and members "persons of impeccable integrity and outstanding ability having special knowledge and expertise of not less than 10 years in matters relating to media" nominated by a selection committee consisting of the Chief Justice of India, the union minister of information and broadcasting, and three members appointed by the union government.

The stated objective of the Bill is to "ensure good quality reporting, which does not only feed news according to television rating points but also, in accordance with issues of prime national importance".

To assist the regulatory Authority in dealing with complaints, the Bill proposes a scrutiny panel and an investigation panel.

In the statement of objects and reasons behind the proposed law, Natarajan claims that live coverage of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks "compromised the police operation," and adds that the media has "forgotten" that the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 of the constitution comes with the caveat of "reasonable restrictions".

"The rights conferred by the Constitution are sacrosanct and should be respected. However, news value has been dwindling every passing day...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," says the Bill.

Her Rules of censorship

* Regulatory authority to be notified by the central government; exempt from RTI; can ban coverage of an event

* Selection committee to have three members selected by the central government

* Among "standards": "prohibition of reporting of any news item based in unverified and dubious material"; "prohibition of publication or broadcast of any material that is defamatory; clear "segregation of opinions from facts"; prohibition of reporting a news item which is obscene, vulgar or "offensive"

* Power to "search and seize" any document "kept secretly at some secluded place". Authority can suspend operations of the media organisation for a period of up to 11 months

* No civil court will have jurisdiction of any matter which the Authority is empowered to determine

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