On Thursday, the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MoEIT) issued a notification regarding the new rules to regulate social media companies, streaming, and digital news content. The wide-ranging new rules will bring these platforms under state scrutiny, in a break from previous Indian regulatory rules.
The “Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021,” was notified after a press conference by Minister of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar and Minister of Law and Justice Ravi Shankar Prasad. The Union Ministers [the Indian equivalent of Federal Ministers] maintained that the introduction of the new rules was an effort to crack down on fake news and the “rampant abuse of social media platforms.”
Given that the BJP is the main beneficiary of the Indian fake news machinery, it is unlikely that the laws would actually be used to ensure ethical journalism. It is more likely that the laws will be used as a tool to weed out content critical of the government or its support base.
The ministers further added that the rules would help in creating a “soft touch progressive institutional mechanism with a level-playing field,” providing a code of ethics and a proper channel to report inappropriate content and ask for its removal.
The draft rules outline religio-cultural sensitivities as a valid reason for content to be banned and instruct that Over-The-Top (OTT) platforms must take into consideration “India’s multi-racial and multi-religious context” in the portrayal of any racial or religious group.
OTTs like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video would be required to self-classify all content into five age-based categories, as is done by films and TV currently. The categories are U (Universal), U/A 7+ (years), U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult). Stand-alone digital entities will be required to inform the government about their ownership details much like print and TV media.
The new regulations also allow consumers to file complaints, allowing for a three-level redressal mechanism, which is perhaps the most authoritarian part of the new regulations. The first platform for redressal is the publisher/platform itself; platforms are to review and sort out consumer complaints. However, the platforms would now be required to compose self-regulating bodies within their organisational structure which would be headed by a retired Supreme Court or High Court judge, or an expert in the domain. This body would regulate the OTT platform’s self-censorship policy and decision. The last avenue for redressal would be an oversight mechanism comprising an inter-departmental government panel.
Fissure between policy and implementation
The BJP government’s ministers and spokespersons have stressed that the regulatory policy would ensure better a standard of journalism and content that is more sensitive to India’s religio-cultural sentiments. The former is nearly impossible under the current government in India; the more interesting aspect, however, would be to understand how BJP has used religio-cultural sensitivities for its own ends.
In December 2020, the Karnataka government deleted certain paragraphs on the Brahmin community from the social science curriculum of Class 6, after the Head of Sri Raghavendra Swamy Mutt from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh objected to the content, saying it was hurtful to their religious sentiments. Primary and Secondary Education Minister S Suresh Kumar issued an order to the Commissioner for Public Instruction to drop the passages. The chapters discussed the Varna (caste) system in ancient India and the plight of the lower classes at the hands of a Brahminical rule.
Given the support for the BJP is located in such organisations and the majority Hindu population, it is unlikely that the religious sentiments being protected would be of the minority communities. The law would be used as a front to block out content that is critical of the current religious intolerance in the country or vocally critiques the current socio-cultural situation in India.
Indian content produced by the OTT platforms had done exactly this. Breaking away from rom-com domestic stories of the mainstream television, Indian web-series had attracted the attention of South Asian youths from across the subcontinent, and provided social commentary on issues that are ignored by TV dramas.
Leila, the Indian Netflix show depicting a dystopian future with water as the most precious resource, critiqued India’s increasing neo-liberal policies (the BJP-TATA neo-liberal nexus). Furthermore, the show critiqued the Indian caste-system by depicting a world where communities live divided along caste lines and had differential access to water and other life-saving resources. Similarly, the Amazon web series Made in Heaven depicted a gay man in India and his experiences with prejudice; it particularly depicted and criticised the vigilante Bajrang Dal, a real-life Hindu nationalist militant organisation which is a member of the right-wing RSS family of organisations, and the unofficial youth wing for BJP.
These shows sparked new conversations in the national discourse of India around traditional ideas, while simultaneously providing a critique for the current system—a function that other political parties have abandoned since 2018.
As political parties seek to create room for themselves within the current system, with professional, ethical journalism choked out, the Indian artistic intelligentsia provided the last stand against the BJP’s vision of India. The new OTT laws are taking out that last remaining thorn from the ruling party’s side.
Much like literature and publishing from all over South Asia had found a safe haven in India, due to its considerably stronger civil liberties and freedoms, South Asian content was also slowly shifting to India as its hub of production.
A recent example is the successful Pakistani web series Churails. The feminist drama challenged the traditional script for content in Pakistan and explored themes that mainstream TV shies away from in an unapologetically feminist manner. The series was produced by and streamed on the Indian OTT platform ZEE5. Similarly, the Bangladeshi web series Taqdeer was produced and streamed by the Indian OTT Hoichoi.
For creators and artists from other South Asian countries, with stricter and more arbitrary censorship laws, India was a more stable and economically viable alternative. This also gave South Asian voices greater reach and coverage in the international content market. The buzz around Churails created by the Indian media led to the cast being interviewed by international publications, with media houses such as Al-Jazeera covering the web series. With the new regulations, such regional collaboration is less likely to occur.
However, the question remains: are global giants going to comply? Pakistan tried introducing similar regulations and had to reconsider after social media companies communicated reservations. India is a much larger market than Pakistan but still does not come close to being a major contributor to the revenue of major OTT platforms. US and Canada alone provide $ 2979.5 million to Netflix, whereas the entirety of Asia provides Netflix with a mere $ 684 million. It remains to be seen whether India can make the multinational OTT platforms comply with the new regulations or would the country be forced to reconsider its stance.