Anupriya Patel, an Apna Dal MP from Uttar Pradesh demanded a ban on the web series ‘Mirzapur’, recently released on Amazon Prime, claiming that it was maligning the image of Mirzapur by portraying it as a ‘violent’ region. Also, earlier this year, there were demands to ban the series ‘Paatal Lok’ on Amazon Prime as certain communities felt that the show was maligning communal harmony. It is a fact that in India, cinematic bold strides have not always been well received. Nevertheless, the Over the Top (OTT) sector is less regulated than its offline counterparts.
Recently, in a gazette notification, signed by President Ram Nath Kovind, it has been stated that online films, digital news and current affairs content will now come under the purview of the Department of Information and Broadcasting. This will undoubtedly give the government control over the online platforms which were unregulated till now.
Reacting to the gazette notification, MediaNama.com tweeted, “So now that it has jurisdiction, it will be in a position to get the kind of regulatory code. And streaming services, already resigned to self-regulation, won’t put up a fight even though the IT Act probably doesn’t allow content regulation of streaming services.” In another tweet, MediaNama.com mentioned, “Remember that this is private viewing and the government has no business, and a stated intent to not control what we watch privately. Streaming services want to avoid lawsuits, so will probably allow a code. Who suffers? User choice. Because no one is standing up for user rights here.” Though the OTT business in India is not more than five years old, it has pushed itself into creating several bold contents.
Understanding the government’s intervention, in January 2019, eight video streaming services signed a self-regulatory code that laid down a set of guiding principles for content on these platforms. This code prohibited five types of content - content that deliberately and maliciously disrespects the national emblem or the national flag, any story line promoting child pornography, any content that ‘maliciously’ intends to outrage religious sentiments, content that ‘deliberately and maliciously’ promotes or encourages terrorism and any content that has been banned for exhibition or distribution by court.
Reacting to the regulatory body for online platforms, filmmaker Safdar Rahman, whose film ‘Chippa’ released on Netflix earlier this year, told BE, “The OTT content creators don't necessarily tend to enjoy total freedom while working for the OTT platforms. One has to get a green-light from the OTT platforms themselves before putting anything and OTT platforms have internal regulations and self-censorship that they follow. If and when the regulations do come in (there is nothing concrete yet to say they will, putting regulations on anything on the internet is an extremely cumbersome and difficult task) there are going to be negotiations that will happen between the OTT platforms and the regulatory bodies about the content. In a sense, it's happening already, though possibly not in an official manner.”
A report by livemint.com stated that India is not the first or only country to regulate digital media. China, Singapore and South Korea have internet-specific censorship laws. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency of the government regulates communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in the US. The US also has sophisticated regulations for the internet.
In an interaction with The Hindu, M.K. Venu, founding editor of the news portal The Wire, said that though the government had been giving enough hints regarding the digital media regulation, the exact nature of the regulation has not been made clear. He further added, “There is no clarity on what they mean by digital media. The government talks about digital media and digital aggregators in the same breath but they are different things. Are they looking at licensing, are they looking at entry barriers, or are they looking at curbing digital media? We still don’t know.”
Several content creators feel that this move is not about violence, language or nudity but about those contents that counter government ideology and policy. In September 2019, Ramesh Solanki, a former Shiv Sena politician from Maharashtra filed a police complaint against Netflix for defaming India and the Indian army in shows like ‘Leila’, ‘Sacred Games’ and others. Madhu Trehan, journalist and co-founder of news portal Newslaundry in an interaction with livemint.com said, “Censorship and controls smack of colonial elitism where the ruling power doesn’t trust the public because they know what is good for us and we don’t.”
Rahman stated that he is not much bothered about this regulation as he personally enjoys the process of pushing boundaries. He added, “I see it similar to working on a very low budget, for example. If this is the reality, I tend to think about what's the best way to navigate this and still feel excited about working. Most of the content coming out of the industry falls well within safety limits anyway. If this imposition makes someone push the boundaries and find more innovative ways to express themselves freely - then good for us.” Short filmmaker Sourav Bhadra also agrees that innovative ways of expressions will be adopted because of the regulations. However, he told BE, “I am not sure if that can help in the evolution of the language of cinema.”