FEBRUARY 25, 2021
The government has finally brought out intermediary guidelines and digital media ethics code, which will cover social media platforms, digital news portals as well OTT (over-the-top) platforms. In a country where millions of people are online on various portals, and new ones spring every day, these draft regulations clarify what was till now a grey area and enable content producers to judiciously self-regulate without impeding the creative boundaries.
In January, our show Tandav was released on an OTT platform. It was the fruit of our labour and we were anxious as to how it would be received, like any other film we make. However, once the show was aired, certain sections of society were offended with certain scenes in the show. At that time, we had to run from pillar to post to prevent an arrest. Had the guidelines been present then, it would have served a two-fold purpose: we would have been self-informed in advance as to what is permissible and what isn’t and secondly, once the show was in line with the guidelines, we would have not have had to run from pillar to post. That is why I whole-heatedly welcome these self-regulatory guidelines.
What is equally heartening to note is that the government has been forthright in reinforcing and respecting the right of every Indian to critique, dissent and have an opinion of her own, as an essential element of democracy. Being a large and unique open society, it is imperative to prevent any reversal to the situation we witnessed during the mid-1970s when our freedoms were snuffed out.
Misuse of social media is a concern that has global resonance. The European Union, Singapore and Australia, among other countries, have for long been debating this issue, given their various social concerns. In India too, we have been talking on this subject for some time and after many consultations the draft rules have been announced on Thursday. Having read them quickly, most of the provisions struck me as well thought-out
For example, the obligation on social media companies to create a complaint redressal mechanism is a good move as it will ensure time-bound redressal of user grievances and protect rights of users who had no such recourse till now. The section that seeks to protect the dignity of users, especially women users, is welcome. The provisions will go a long way in making the platform safe for women, which is a must for healthy conversations and indeed a healthy society.
I am personally thrilled by the provision that mandates the intermediaries to provide a mechanism for verification of users who wish to get verification done and provide them a visible symbol of verification. This will ensure social media discourses are more authentic and will also enhance the quality of conversations.
Finally, on OTTs, the industry I come from, I have no hesitation in saying that the regulations are revolutionary in the way they introduce a self-regulation mechanism that the industry has been aspiring for since a very long time. The regulation will be at three levels—Level-I: Self-regulation by an individual publisher. If this does not work, then Level-II, which involves self-regulatory bodies set up by publishers themselves. Only when these two mechanisms fail will Level-III kick in, which is an oversight mechanism under the ministry.
This is a very friendly, non-interfering, non-intimidatory regulatory mechanism and I compliment the government for thinking of us, content creators, as partners in telling our beautiful stories rather than those who need to be policed. The guidelines introduced by the government aren’t restrictive but rather strike a balance between artistic creativity and upholding law and order. There was a palpable fear amongst filmmakers that censorship may be introduced along with these rules. However, the government was mindful of the nature of how OTT is streamed and rightly chose a model of self-regulation.
So, the rules do not provide for content censorship but rather prescribe the same norm for content classification as is being used globally. OTT players will provide the content description with each content: “U”- suitable for children; “U/A 7+”- suitable for persons aged 7 years and above; “U/A 13+”- suitable for persons aged 13 years and above; “U/A 16+”- suitable for persons aged 16 years and above; “A”- restricted for adults only.
Have we all not been aspiring for such classification-based approach rather than a censor approach? The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown remarkable foresight and wisdom in taking this approach and I thank him and his government for placing trust in content creators as being responsible storytellers.
Films and television series are an integral part of not only the Indian economy but also strengthen our soft power. Many a times, we have seen a film make a city famous, which subsequently becomes a sought-after holiday destination. Sometimes films bring a subject into public discourse.
The guidelines introduced today give the industry, which I belong to, an opportunity to flourish without being afraid. The government has placed trust in us. We will do our part in being responsible and that I promise.
The future is very bright for films, cinema and visual storytelling by India and Indians and these co-regulatory frameworks will help us grow and thrive and further strengthen our soft power.
Ali Abbas Zafar is film director and producer and has directed films like Sultan and Tiger Zinda Hai and web series Tandav. Views are personal.