NEW DELHI: The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting under Smriti Irani has in its wisdom issued an order on April 4 to set up an almost all bureaucrats committee to “frame and suggest a regulatory framework for online media news portals including digital broadcasting and entertainment / infotainment / infotainment sites and news/media aggregators.”

The order has come just after the Minister had to retract an effort to regulate the media using ‘fake news’ as the pretext. Amidst the storm of protest, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had felt it prudent to intervene and ensure that the move was withdrawn even after Irani had spent virtually most of the night locking horns with senior journalists and even Opposition leaders, and aggressively supporting the decision.

Barely has the dust settled on this controversy, that the Ministry now has issued an order in an equally misplaced move to regulate the electronic media. The order issued on April 4 states that the Secretary, I&B, will be the Convenor. The Committee is heavy with Secretaries of electronics and information technology, home legal affairs, industrial policy and promotion. Bringing up the rear are the CEO of MyGov and representatives of the Press Council of India (now under fairly effective control of the government), the News Broadcasters Association and the Indian Broadcasters Federation.

There is not a single representative from the electronic media, or any other stakeholders from the public at large. The terms of reference can be seen in the photograph with this article that clearly spell out one, the expanse of the electronic media (and far more) that will be brought under the scope of the new regulations that are to be framed; and using the pretext of similar rules for the print and the television media, seek to regulate what has been a democratic space till now for all sections of society.

Internet has been a space for all, from the right to the left, and while this has often been spoken of with concern, there is also wide recognition of the space for dissent and debate that is now available through media outlets/aggregators and all such portals that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting now plans to bring under its control. At a time when major newspapers and television channels are being controlled by big corporates, many of them without even declaring the huge investments made in media, the internet has provided a space for free and independent journalism.

As the Indian Express has pointed out in an editorial, most of the big media have an online presence and are already under the control of the various regulators and the huge body of laws in existence. The other online media sites that are seen as credible and followed by a readership online are run by professional journalists, as the editorial points out.

Given the recent trajectory of Irani and her Ministry it is very clear that the government is trying hard to control the media, even though the major media houses range from being controlled, to active propagators of the government and the ruling party. The recent efforts are to plug what the government sees as loopholes through which dissent through independent reportage can and has been coming through.

The directive that the government has been compelled to withdraw using fake news as the pretext, would have basically shackled journalists further with the government giving itself the power to try and then punish journalists for supposedly propagating fake news by cancelling their accreditation. This absurd order created a storm of protest, but Irani remained adamant until the PM intervened following the feedback that this would alienate the entire media, and even propagators of government achievements would find it difficult to survive the backlash within.

Almost immediately after this sections of the media reported that Irani was also actively considering another ‘surveillance’ scheme, of swapping regular accreditation cards with radio-frequency identification (RFID) card. The Print reported that the Press Information Bureau under the I&B Ministry had written to the Union home ministry to see if this could be implemented. This would allow the government to track the movements of journalists inside government buildings and offices.

This order now constitutes yet another move, this time directed against the online media that has been using the space for independent and bold reporting. Several online news sites have emerged, along with aggregators who also put together specialised and other news. Given the record of the Ministry, under Irani, this move is clearly not benign. And journalists who have been now discussing the import, are also pointing at the constitution of the committee were five of the nine are Secretaries of different Ministries.

The Lok Sabha elections are due in 2019, and given the increasing attacks on journalists across India this move to set up a Committee to control the electronic media acquires questionable dimensions. More so when the bulk of news, as the Express has pointed out, is handled by professional journalists with far more experience in the field and in news gathering than the heads of several channels that did not hesitate to use fake videos without determining their authenticity.

The Supreme Court has ruled three years ago for free speech, right to dissent, and right to know by striking down Section 66 of the Information Technology Act. The Ministry should be left with no option but to scrap the committee, and get out of the free and independent media space instead of trying to bring in controls through flimsy pretexts, one after the other.