On Monday, the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting refused to renew Malayalam news channel MediaOne TV’s permission to broadcast on television after the Union Ministry of Home Affairs denied clearance to the channel.

In response, MediaOne approached the Kerala High Court, which deferred this suspension until Wednesday, when it will hear the case next. MediaOne TV’s editor issued a statement saying that the channel had not been made aware of the reasons for the suspension.

This ban again puts the spotlight on the Union government’s ability to control what gets aired on television. This isn’t the first time MediaOne has run into trouble with the ruling dispensation. In 2020, the news channel, along with Asianet News, was banned for 48 hours for its coverage of the riots in Delhi on the grounds that it was “biased” and critical of the Delhi Police and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the Hindutva organisation that is the parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

How are TV channels regulated?

Television content is regulated by Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995. Under this law, the Central government controls who gets the permission required to operate a television channel and even what kind of content it can broadcast.

Every channel has to register with the government before it can go on air. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s 2011 Guidelines on Uplinking and Downlinking of Television Channels lays down the conditions for obtaining this registration. This includes having a company registered in India and minimum net worth requirements, among others.

To start a channel, the 2011 guidelines specify that an application has to be made to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The ministry evaluates a channel’s suitability for an Indian audience. It then forwards it to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which must give a security clearance to these channels.

Registration is awarded for 10 years. The company is required to follow all the conditions laid down under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, which includes following a Programme Code that sets out what kind of broadcast content is permissible.

The logos of the MediaOne and Asianet News that had been banned for 48 hours in 2020.

The Centre also has the right to suspend the registration of a channel “for a specific period in public interest or in the interest of national security”. The channel has to comply with such an order immediately. Additionally, in case of a “war, calamity or national security concerns” the government has the power to prohibit the reception or transmission or any channel.

Every ten years, companies must apply to have their registations renewed. The government has the power to refuse renewal if a company has violated the terms and conditions laid down in law.

MediaOne’s 10-year permission to broadcast was ending in September 2021. When it applied for a renewal under the 2011 guidelines, the Ministry of Home Affairs did not give it security clearance. The Information and Broadcasting ministry sent a show-cause notice to MediaOne on January 5 asking why it should be granted permission to broadcast their channel.

The company responded to say that it had not been informed why this clearance had been denied by the home ministry. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry subsequently revoked MediaOne’s permission to broadcast.

On what grounds can a programme or channel be taken off air?

Section 5 of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act says that any programme that is transmitted must conform to a Programme Code. This code is stipulated in the Cable Television Networks Rules 1994. The code contains a list of 17 items that are barred from television programming. This includes offending “good taste or decency”, anything that “contains anything affecting the integrity of the nation” and programming that “contains criticism of friendly countries”.

Further, under Sections 19 and 20, the Central government can prohibit or regulate the transmission of a programme or a channel if it violates the Programme Code. The government can also prohibit the transmission on other grounds, such as in public interest, security or sovereignty of the country. Before such a prohibition or regulation, the Central government may give the channel operator a chance to present its case.

In 2008, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting established anElectronic Media Monitoring Centre to ensure that TV channels follow the conditions laid down in Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act. This records channels round the clock in order to scrutinise them.

Further, TV broadcasters have a three-tiered regulation mechanism comprising self-regulation, self-regulation by a body of broadcasters and an oversight mechanism by the government. For this oversight, the government has formed an inter-departmental committee consisting of bureaucrats from various ministries to ensure that these codes are being followed.

This three-tiered mechanism was brought by an amendment in 2021 and has been challenged before the Kerala High Court on the grounds that this mechanism gives the executive excessive powers to regulate TV media which goes against freedom of speech guaranteed under the Constitution.

How does this compare to print media?

While newspapers and periodicals also have to be registered under the Press and Registration of Books Act 1867, the level of information required and the scrutiny is less intense than for TV channels. Unlike TV channels, registration for print publications is not given for a fixed period and since there are fewer compliance requirements, the grounds to cancel a paper’s registration are limited.

Further, there are Norms of Journalistic Conduct stipulated by the Press Council of India that lay down the standard that journalists, editors and writers have to maintain to effectively discharge their role as members of the press.

This, however as noted by courts, is a moral check, not a legal one. Even the Press Council of India Act 1978 only gives powers to warn, admonish or disprove the conduct of a journalist or an editor.

Journalists hold candles and placards during a candlelight vigil against police brutalities and attacks on press freedom in Mumbai, India. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

There are also state-specific laws to regulate newspapers. For example, in 2016, the government of Jammu and Kashmir banned the newspaper Kashmir Reader for running material that could allegedly disturb public peace and tranquillity. This was done under the provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir State Press and Publications Act 1989 and the Jammu and Kashmir Newspaper (Incitements of Offences) Act 1971, read with the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973.

In addition to laws that directly control the press, the government can also exercise control over what is published in any medium through laws relating to sedition, criminal defamation or other criminal law provisions under the Indian Penal Code 1860.

What are examples of actions taken under the Cable Television Act?

In November 2016, the Union government ordered that Hindi news channel NDTV India be banned for 24 hours for allegedly revealing sensitive information during a terror attack. Several other channels had also aired similar information but were not penalised, illustrating the arbitrary power the government had in this case.

In August 2021, the government informed Rajya Sabha that in five years, 204 TV channels had ceased operations due to various reasons, including non-fulfilment of the conditions laid down in law. In the same period, the government had taken action in 128 cases related to alleged violations of the Programme Code by TV channels.

Of late, the government has also attempted to institute a similar kind of control over online media as it has over television. The Information Technology Rules 2021 prescribe that digital media publishers have to adhere to a Code of Ethics, which also contains the Programme Code specified under the Cable Television Act as well as Norms of Journalistic Conduct stipulated by the Press Council of India.

In 2020, when there were petitions against Sudarshan News for allegedly airing communal content, the government said that if there is a call to regulate the media, then digital media must be regulated first.