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    Press Club of India Proposes National Media Council in New Bill to Protect Press Freedom: Key Highlights

    The Press Club of India (PCI) has released the draft Media Transparency (And Accountability) Bill, 2024 calling for the establishment of a National Media Council for regulation of media, and to tackle issues related to ownership of media organisations and executive overreach that muzzle press freedom in India.

    The PCI has invited suggestions from press bodies, civil society organisations, and digital rights organisations until June 30 before submitting them to the government and other political parties.

    In 2023, the PCI began developing a new legislative framework for media regulation, identifying three major challenges: lack of transparency in ownership, financial coercion through government advertisement allocation, and coercive actions against journalists.

    Highlighting the lack of financial autonomy of media organisations due to dependence on government advertising revenue, the bill noted:

    “A natural consequence of the government’s ability to exercise unbridled power and control through an Executive-dominated regulatory structure combined with financial leverage has severely eroded the ability of the media to push back against the default impulse of the Executive to stem freedom of the press.”

    The members of the sub-committee that developed the draft include Seema Chishti—Editor, The Wire; Hartosh Singh Bal—Executive Editor, The Caravan; Jatin Gandhi—PCI Managing Committee member,;Dhirendra K Jha—Independent Journalist; Vivek Mukherji—Independent Journalist; Sarim Naved—Advocate, Supreme Court; and Harsh Kumar—Lawyer/Researcher.

    Why it matters:

    The draft bill proposed by the PCI arrives amid growing threats to press freedom from new legislative measures, such as the Press Registration of Periodicals Bill 2023, and existing blocking laws like Section 69A. The Press Registration of Periodicals Bill 2023 has been criticised for widening State powers, enabling more intrusive and arbitrary checks on newspapers and magazines than existing laws. Not to forget, the fact-check amendment to the IT Rules, 2021 also raises serious concerns about the editorial independence of news organisations, thereby endangering press freedom.

    The bill grants power to a wider representative body to oversee complaints against media outlets, in addition to other important provisions related to financial independence. If implemented effectively, the new governing body can offer some level of safeguards from arbitrary actions against media organisations. However, the participation of political party members and members of the parliament still casts doubt over the complete autonomy of the proposed regulating body.

    Key points from the bill

    1. Definition of media outlet: As per the bill, a media outlet shall include:

    “…any person engaged in the generation, production and distribution of news and opinion in text, audio, or audio-visual format via newspaper, magazine, internet, terrestrial and satellite broadcast, radio or through any electronic mode, or any other electronic mode, or any other electronic form as defined in clause (r) of sub-section (1) of Section 2 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 or any other mode of mass communication.”

    This indicates that the bill is applicable to digital news media organisations as well, in addition to print, television, and radio.

    2. Establishment of the National Media Council:

    The bill pointed out that there is a need to establish an equitable regulatory structure representative of the multi-party democratic structure of India for the regulation of media. This means shifting the “power of the Executive,” comprising the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (licences), Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (intermediaries), and Ministry of Home Affairs (security clearances) to a more representative body called the National Media Council.

    According to the bill, the Central government may appoint the National Media Council (NMC) consisting of a chairperson and 16 members including one retired Justice of the Supreme Court or retired Chief Justice of a High Court, one Member of Parliament from each national party, one Member of Parliament from top 5 State parties, one senior journalist nominated by the News Broadcasters & Digital Association among others.

    The NMC will also consist of an electoral college which will have 15 nominated members comprising six members from National Parties, five from State Parties, one representing the Editors Guild of India and DIGIPUB, one from the press bodies, one from the News Broadcasters & Digital Association, and one from the Indian Newspaper Society.

    The NMC’s main role will be to maintain a stable and predictable Indian media ecosystem, address rule breaches established by the Act, and consistently uphold press freedom and the public good.

    3. Powers of the NMC: The bill grants “all such powers” to the NMC that are necessary for performing its functions. Additionally, the NMC will also have the power to “direct the government to allocate or deallocate every existing allocation regarding advertising to ensure that no unfair advantage is gained by any political party, body or person due to the quantum of advertising expenditure made by the government”.

    Importantly, the bill states that the permission of the NMC is prerequisite to initiating any criminal proceedings against any media outlet or any of its employees regarding any journalistic story or activity. The NMC can grant or deny such permission on the basis of the factual correctness of the complaint, violation of relevant provisions of law, and initiation of prosecution for public good.

    4. Registration of media outlets: The bill requires all media outlets to register with the NMC within a year of enactment of the law, in order to qualify for the benefits provided under the Act or any funding from the state or the central government, whether directly or indirectly. It states that the NMC will also maintain a register of media outlets, and a copy of such a register will be provided to the government annually.

    Media outlets will also be required to submit reports pertaining to the subscription and advertisement revenue, advertising rates, and top ten advertisers for the outlet, to the NMC. The bill prescribes penalties for the non-disclosure of necessary information, in addition to other contraventions of the law.

    5. Granting funds to the NMC: In Chapter VIII, the bill states that the central government may allot to the NMC “such sums of money as the government may deem fit.” Additionally, the government will also allot 2% of the money from the income of political parties to the NMC. The PCI will also constitute a National Media Fund to meet the expenses of the NMC and provide initial funding to media startups.

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    The post Press Club of India Proposes National Media Council in New Bill to Protect Press Freedom: Key Highlights appeared first on MEDIANAMA.

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