Across South Asia, ruling establishments have introduced or are attempting to introduce laws that curb the working of independent media, while claiming to uphold democratic values.

India’s federal information and broadcasting ministry has put out the draft of a proposed “Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2006” which ostensibly seeks to regulate “objectionable” content on television news and prevent media monopolies.

The journalists’ fraternity in a country that is often described as the world’s largest democracy has opposed controversial provisions in the bill. Information and Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi’s take on the bill that it is merely a set of proposals to be debated and discussed and that he is committed to preserving media freedom has not washed. Interestingly, India’s law ministry too is reportedly against the bill.

Also, the government may suspend the operations of a TV channel that is found to be “hurting public interest”. If “programme codes” are violated, the service provider’s equipment could be seized. Supervision and inspection of service providers by government officials would be permitted to ensure compliance with the proposed law.

If a TV channel is found promoting “disharmony, enmity, hatred or ill will”, the government could shut it down. The proposed bill also mandates: “The broadcast service provider should not give undue prominence to the views and opinions of particular persons or bodies on matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy.” In other words, the regulator would decide what “undue prominence” is.

On cross-media ownership, the bill proposes various restrictions to prevent the formation of media monopolies by groups owning publications, radio stations and television channels.

In Pakistan, the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), formed in 2002, has the right to issue directives on policy matters “as and when it considers necessary” to private TV channels. Shireen Pasha, a leading documentary filmmaker notes that PEMRA has terms and conditions for granting licenses to run private channels that are discriminatory and prohibitive. Ten per cent of programmes were to be spent on “public interest, to be specified by the government or the Authority.”

Nepal has witnessed widespread violations of media freedom by the monarchy after the February 1, 2005, palace coup that imposed emergency. Under the new democratic regime, journalists are now looking forward to how the newly established Media Suggestions Commissions would strengthen the working of independent media organisations in the country.

The Sri Lankan government is said to be considering a move to reactivate the Press Council, which would have judicial powers to penalise journalists. In Bangladesh, journalists’

associations are demanding enactment of a law to protect media freedom in the wake of several violent incidents against media persons.

The Maldives government has been planning to introduce a Press Freedom Bill by presidential decree. “Article 19”, an international watchdog body on freedom of expression, released a report, last month, saying the proposed bill contains clauses that can be used to further government control over the media. — IPS