DTH: Direct from government?

Indian Express, 28 December 2005

Last week saw the launch of INSAT 4A, India’s most powerful communication satellite. It will provide Direct-to-home (DTH) telecasts from early 2006. This is good news for all those of us who have had to suffer the cable TV operators’ mafia. DTH services cut out the middlemen completely, as satellite TV programmes are beamed directly to individual homes through a set-top box. Not only is the quality of the reception much better, since it is digitalised, the number of channels available are also much more.

But this development comes with a sting to its tail. We may end up switching one middleman, the cable operator, for another (and far more powerful one), the government. The cable operator is agnostic about what people want to watch. The government has a strong compulsion to promote state interests. In other words, the choice before the Indian TV watcher is unenviable: cable TV thugs versus government-circumscribed DTH.

Already the rules for granting licences are riddled with so-called “safeguards”. They say that the company offering a DTH service should have an Indian chief and that foreign equity should be capped at 49 per cent. Broadcasting companies cannot hold more than 20 per cent in the venture. Programmes distributed through DTH should only be uplinked from India and they have to conform to the programming and advertising code of the Indian government. The telecast has to be done via an Indian satellite, and that is why the government needed to launch a communication satellite so that an Indian satellite is available to provide the required Ku-band responders, instead of allowing foreign commercial satellites from renting out their services.

Government-owned Doordarshan will be a major player in DTH services. The ministry of information and broadcasting has already been pointing fingers at cable TV operators who show adult films and videos without the censor certificate. They cite the Cinematographic Act of 1952, which says that unrestricted public viewing is allowed only for films and film-related content which has been given a U-certificate by the Central Board of Film Certification. The Bombay High Court has cited the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act 1995 to stop cable TV operator from showing films with an A or a U/A certificate on cable TV.

Experts are reported to have said that this will not apply to cable TV viewers, but that is merely because DTH is not all-pervasive today. It would be naive to believe that the Indian state — which is sharply inclined towards censorship — will not extend the same rules to DTH broadcasters. These regulations may not exist today, but there should be no doubt that they will soon be put in place. In fact, not satisfied with existing censorship guidelines, the government has just formed a 30-member committee to suggest necessary amendments to the Cable TV Act to “introduce screening and broadcasting policy to ensure wholesome content for family viewing and listening”. The committee, headed by Information and Broadcasting Secretary S.K. Arora has been given three months to study programming and advertising codes and the Censor Board rules, as the “existing provisions do not cover all aspects of the content of films and television programmes in detail.” The committee will work out fresh guidelines to keep a check on films and TV programmes, so that no “obscene” or “unwanted” material is shown to the public.

This raises a fundamental question about Indian democracy. Today, we all agree we are better off if the government does not own a newspaper. We have some residual hang-ups about foreigners publishing newspapers and magazines in India, but these are thankfully fading away. The foundation of democracy is unfettered freedom of speech: anyone should be able to produce a newspaper, without any interference from the government; and the government should have nothing to do with printing presses or newspapers. But when it comes to the electronic media, we suddenly shift gears. We accept a big role for the government in running “newspapers” (AIR and Doordarshan) and “printing presses” (satellites). We give the government all kinds of powers to determine who should produce what kinds of programmes; about what kind of content is acceptable.

All this goes against democratic tenets. The very idea of a “ministry of information and broadcasting” is in itself an Orwellian construct. It is time for all of us to question the legitimacy of a ruling party having AIR, DD and the ministry of I&B, through which it can regulate information flows.

It is ironical that a modern, and attractive, technology like DTH holds the potential to undermine our democratic freedoms. In our fledgling democracy, any increase in the power of the state, and any control on information, should be viewed with the greatest concern.

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