Guest Article: Paritosh Joshi: Dear MIB, Remember the Constitution?

By Paritosh Joshi , ASCI & BARC, New Delhi | In Media Publishing | June 25, 2013
How does the MIB expect to set an objective, universally applicable standard of evaluation to decide what comprises 'blind belief'? Moreover, will doing so not infringe on the right to free profession, practice and propagation of religion guaranteed by the Constitution?

On June 7, 2013, the director (BC), Ministry of Information & Broadcasting issued Advisory No. 3105/74/2012-BC-III. This Advisory takes broadcasters to task for "telecasting programmes which appear to encourage superstition and blind belief" (emphasis as per original document). It proceeds to elaborate what these programmes are and concludes several hundred words later by reminding broadcasters that "any violation of the Programme Code/Advertising Code would attract penal provisions detailed in Section 20 of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 and the terms and conditions of uplinking and downlinking guidelines".

Paritosh Joshi

The velvet gloves are off and the iron hands are revealed.

I am no legal expert but pejorative references to "Gurus and self-proclaimed healers" start to tread on very thin Constitutional ice indeed. Article 25 guarantees the "Right to Freedom of Religion" more specifically articulated as "Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion". The only caveats or qualifications placed upon this right pertain to "public order, morality and health".

The phrase "propagation of religion" is very important here. Not only are you free to practice your religious faith, you have the right to propagate it too and anything that seeks to abridge such a right would presumably violate the spirit of the Constitution. Proscriptions such as encouraging superstition and blind belief don't appear to offend any of the caveats specified. In general, one person's belief is another's superstition and vice-versa, so how does the MIB expect to set an objective, universally applicable standard of evaluation that will reveal which is which?

However, that is the least of the problems that plagues this advisory.

Any figure of authority issuing an instruction must depend primarily on its logical correctness and only in extremis on coercion for securing compliance. Instructions posited on blatantly unsound premises only serve to undermine and erode authority. Take a look at page 12 of the Downlink Licence Application Form. "Category of Channel" 6 (c) reads "Special or Niche Channel e.g. Sports, Environment, Science, Technology, Religion" (emphasis added).

Here's Wikipedia's list of Religious Channels broadcasting in India. Much of the content that the author of the MIB Advisory finds offensive often originates on one of these channels and then is clipped into shorter duration shows that run on a wide range of the other channels as paid slots. If the slots give offence, it is reasonable to assume that their source automatically falls foul of the Advisory. Is it then to be read as a warning shot across the bows of all these channels?

The term "Advisory" suggests something that advises but does not command. You could choose to accept the advice or ignore it, and nothing worse than an admonishment ought to follow. An 'Order' or a 'Rule' framed under a specific law must stand up to a higher standard of legal and procedural scrutiny. An "Advisory" needn't meet those exacting standards and presumably leaves more wiggle room in the hands of the issuing entity. However, use the word "Whereas" (that prefaces almost every paragraph in the Advisory in discussion) often enough and follow it up with instructions demanding periodic reports confirming compliance and the lines between "advice" and "fiat" begin to blur.

They vanish altogether when the "Advisory" invokes dire consequences that might follow in the wake of non-compliance but words them ambiguously enough to keep the issue wide open.

Remarkably, this Advisory even candidly acknowledges the impotency of the whole process by citing a previous Advisory on a similar theme sent in 2010! And this finally brings me to the biggest issue of all.

An authority figure must be taken seriously. If it says or does anything that impacts constituencies in its jurisdictions, they must feel compelled to act with alacrity and decisiveness. If years pass in stakeholder apathy and indifference, provoking nothing more than resigned sighs and hand wringing, the certitudes of jurisdiction are inevitably going to fray. If we were discussing an authority figure in the private realm, this would at worst represent a professional debacle. We aren't. This is about a Ministry of the Government of the day, an organ of the highest executive authority in the country.

A lot of criticism levelled at the Government particularly in the last two years speaks of policy paralysis and catatonic inaction. Until last year, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting was one of the few shining exceptions to this malaise. But when bluster replaces deliberation, you begin to wonder whether the contagion has finally reached the MIB, too.

Paritosh Joshi, a member of the Advertising Standards Council of India and a member on the technical committee of BARC (the upcoming television audience measurement firm), has been in the broadcast industry for about seven years. He is a member of the board of governors on the MRUC (Market Research Users Council).