New streaming and digital media rules by Indian government rattles industry

The seemingly innocuous 'rule' concerning digital media portends more troubling changes to come, say industry watchers, and will throttle creativity, and most importantly, muzzle the few, bold online news sites that dare to critique the government.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

Just a few months ago, I wrote this piece that wondered whether India would bring Amazon and Netflix to heel by regulating them.

Last Wednesday, a major development indicated which way the wind would blow, according to many industry watchers, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government introduced a notification that may just be the beginning of things to come.

The rule, that has shocked many, simply states that digital media -- from Netflix, to news sites like thewire.com, to social media sites like Facebook, to photos of your labrador that you have uploaded onto the internet -- will now be regulated by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. 

Until now, this division of the government only censored and regulated print newspapers, television, films and theatre while digital content effectively slipped under the radar, but this luck seems to have run out.

So, what exactly does rule this portend? It's not entirely clear. To some who earn their bread and butter monitoring these industries, the prognosis is dire.

Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist and founder of prominent website MediaNama that writes about these industries said this to the Guardian: "The fear is that with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting -- essentially India's Ministry of Truth -- now in a position to regulate online news and entertainment, we will see a greater exercise of government control and censorship."

If this becomes reality it would wreck the plans of companies such as Netflix and Amazon that have seen their fortunes rise dramatically in the last few years with the spectacular boom of smartphones and cheap data, both goldmines that keep on giving. The COVID era has only added more fuel to this trend.

Eager to capitalise on this nascent market, Netflix has already pumped $400 million into the country and amassed 2.5 million precious subscribers. Consulting outfit PwC predicts that India's media and entertainment industry will grow at a brisk 10.1% clip annually to reach $2.9 billion by 2024.

A company like Netflix must be aghast at this development since surely a good chunk of its library could be made out of reach for Indians if the heavily censored film industries -- including the big daddy of them all, Bollywood -- are used as a benchmark for a code by which streaming services will have to live by.

Although, how the I&B Ministry is going to wade through thousands of films, series, and documentaries and affix either their rating or -- and this is even more fantastical to imagine -- suggest cuts where appropriate is beyond me.

Curbing entertainment, however, is one kind of problem to grapple with. The most alarming development, however, is the possibility that digital news will also face the scythe.

The majority of India's television news channels and print publications are veritable lapdogs of the government, terrified of being critical of it. The only real journalism being done is in the digital realm on sites like thewire.com or scroll.com which have rubbed the government the wrong way.

So much so that its editor, Siddharth Vardarajan, formerly head of one of India's most distinguished national newspapers, ironically called The Hindu, has been perpetually in the sights of the Modi government and his appointed allies in various states.

Vardarajan, who has been at the receiving end of multiple criminal charges for criticising Modi, said this to the Guardian: "The government has been claiming for some time now that online news is some sort of wild west that follows no rules. This is nonsense since all the restrictions that come with the constitutional guarantee of free speech, and a free press, apply to news websites, just as they do to newspapers and TV channels. But what irks the government is the use we have made of our freedom -- to ask questions and pursue stories that the big media increasingly shies away from."

Then there is the prospect of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook also being put under the purview of the government which will be interesting to watch, considering both Facebook and its wildly popular messaging app WhatsApp have been responsible for inciting religious hatred, riots, and even a genocide in South Asia.

On the other hand, some observers think that it is too hasty to predict what exactly the intentions are. After all, the scope of the rule so far is only to move monitoring to another department.

Of course, what could then follow are new guidelines for how to tackle the rating of content, or in the most sanguine case, the adoption of existing guidelines.

In fact, the Ministry, as far back as last year began nudging over-the-top (OTT) outfits such as Netflix and Indian giant AltBalaji to come together, frame, and adopt guidelines in a move to self-regulate.

Not everyone -- Netflix being one of the voices -- agreed. Finally, around a year later and on the third try, 15 OTT platforms including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, ALTBalaji, ZEE5, Arre, Discovery+, Eros Now, and others agreed to ink a code of self-regulation, by putting together a framework for age classification, appropriate content description, and access control.

This wasn't enough, however. The Ministry said that the response was essentially anaemic and didn't list specific content that should be and would be policed or axed entirely. It went on to suggest to the group to look at other self-regulatory models for benchmarks and restructure the complaint committee with more government representation.

Speculation about the real intentions of the government have since continued. Now, there have been several lawsuits that have been filed by individuals who have raised objections about the obscenity and violence in some of the shows being aired.

Even the Supreme Court has weighed in and urged the government to look at regulation.

Naturally, the government couldn't care less about the likes of Narcos or the Walking Dead. What it is eyeballing with greater scrutiny no doubt are the new Indian series on the likes of Netflix and Amazon such as Sacred Games, Paatal Lok, Rashbhari, Leila, Ghoul, and Family Man.
All of these have let loose an unbridled torrent of creativity, sans the trademark censorship, that India has never seen. And yes, some of these, such as Sacred Games, have an impressive collection of obscenities and tremendous violence. But these are mere trifles.

What the government is most concerned about, say some, is the fact that these shows take the veil off sexual violence, homophobia, misogyny, and India's rampant caste-related crimes.

Some have ventured into sensitive territory and despite treating material with painstaking even-handedness, they have attracted the ire of Hindu rightwing organisations such as the ruling party's immensely powerful cultural wing, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and have been branded "anti-India" or "anti-Hindu". Having relatable Muslim protagonists, such as in the series Ghoul, doesn't help.
In fact, the Economic Times reports that representatives of the RSS, the all-powerful cultural wing of the ruling party have held at least six meetings with officials of online streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon to curb "anti-national" and "anti-Hindu" content on shows and instead, have exhorted them to portray "real Indian culture or ethos", whatever that may be.

Hardly the stuff of good vibes for a beleaguered industry.


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