Remote Control

A secretive government organisation watches over Indian television

01 December, 2015

At 8 pm on 16 October last year, the English-language entertainment channel Star World aired an episode of the classic American cartoon sitcom The Simpsons. In it, Marge Simpson’s older sisters, the twins Patty and Selma, kidnap Richard Dean Anderson, a Hollywood actor famous for playing MacGyver, the resourceful inventor. At one point, Selma forces Anderson to autograph her breasts. Later, he escapes his captors, in true MacGyver fashion, by rigging a bra to a rope and sliding down it, out the window.In Delhi, these scenes caught the attention of a “monitor” in the office of the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre, or EMMC, a government organisation that keeps track of television content in India. Deciding that the episode contained objectionable matter, the monitor drafted a complaint against the show.

While making out a complaint, EMMC monitors are to note the date and time of the telecast, and write a brief description of the offending material. Specifically, their job is to watch for violations of the Programme Code, which, under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, governs what may and may not be shown on Indian television. But one monitor I spoke to, who has worked at the EMMC for six years, described the task more broadly, as “writing down anything that could make the audience uncomfortable.”

At the end of a day’s work, each monitor emails his or her complaints to a “compilation team” of senior supervisors. In all, that team usually receives between 2,000 and 4,000 such complaints every month. These “rough violations” are then reviewed, and narrowed down to a final list of “gross violations.”

Monitors of the EMMC recently raised complaints against the “indecent” content on The Simpsons.
Monitors of the EMMC recently raised complaints against the “indecent” content on The Simpsons.
Monitors of the EMMC recently raised complaints against the “indecent” content on The Simpsons.

At the next stage, complaints from this shortlist are discussed at the meetings of a scrutiny committee. The committee’s members are chosen by the ministry of information and broadcasting. It comprises representatives of that same ministry, as well as representatives from other government bodies, such as the National Commission for Women, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, and the Central Board for Film Certification. Currently, it also has a single independent member, Prabhakar Kumar, who works with CMS, a not-for-profit policy organisation. Kumar told me these meetings take place in the conference room of the EMMC office, a long, plush hall located on the tenth floor of Soochna Bhawan, a building on south Delhi’s Lodhi Road. Each month, the committee sits together for four or five hours to watch hundreds of objectionable clips from the latest shortlist. Usually, two monitors from the EMMC are present—one to play the clips, and another to read aloud the violation reports corresponding to the tape.

Officials present at the meetings then prepare a final list of complaints to send to the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, or BCCC, a body that represents television channels and mediates between the government and the television industry.

In its final complaint against the 16 October broadcast of The Simpsons, the EMMC wrote:

In this animated programme, a woman has been shown trying to forcefully get an autograph on her breasts from a man after kidnapping him. In another highly indecent visual, a man uses a bra as a tool to escape from the house. This is an animation show with no advice for viewer’s discretion. It is telecast when a large number of children watch TV. So, it may be construed to be a programme meant for children. The content is indecent. It refers to women’s innerwear as an object of fun. By such indecent presentation, the programme/channel denigrates women.

This wasn’t the only complaint against the show around this time. In November, the EMMC took issue with another episode, which featured the main characters, the married couple Homer and Marge. The EMMC wrote:

Homer and Marge, frustrated as they don’t get privacy to make love in their own house decide to record a fake fight and play it for their children so that they remain away from their room. But things get messed up and children end up watching them in bed—having sex. The scene is indecent and vulgar. The channel should not telecast such visuals without proper editing. Visuals, where two kids see their parents make love are offensive. Children watch whatever comes on TV in the name of cartoon/animation. There is no disclaimer/warning for viewer’s discretion.

The complaints came up before the BCCC. This is generally considered a liberal body, which tries to buffer official intrusion, though it has limited actual authority. If the council deems a complaint valid, it can ask a channel to run an apology, or it can impose a fine. But the real power lies with an inter-ministerial committee that also receives reports from the EMMC, and can recommend stringent action, including channel bans. But most cases, apart from the most egregious, are dismissed by the BCCC. Vir Sanghvi, a journalist and a member of the BCCC, told me that in the case of TheSimpsons, the council saw no need to act. “We didn’t take any decisions,” he said. “The Simpsons is The Simpsons.”

In August, the government said that NDTV “tended to denigrate” the Indian justice system in its coverage of Yakub Memon’s trial and execution.

The government has followed this process—of identifying complaints and narrowing them down before possibly taking action against channels—since 2008, when the EMMC was established. Though the organisation was started by the previous administration, it has received significantly more resources under the National Democratic Alliance regime. Towards the end of last year, the EMMC moved from a staid building in Indraprastha Estate, in central Delhi, to its spacious present headquarters on Lodhi Road. I visited both over the course of reporting this piece. The old premises might have accommodated about 150 employees; the new offices looked capable of accomodating twice that number. Currently, the organisation employs more than 200 monitors.

As it expands, the EMMC continues to generate a steady stream of violation reports. Over the past year, the government has banned or temporarily suspended at least seven channels, five of them on charges of obscenity. This included a Gujarat-based news channel called Satlon News TV, which was taken off the air for 30 days, starting in mid April, for showing nude images of an actor. NDTV Good Times and TLC were both embargoed for one day each, also for obscenity. Comedy Central, meanwhile, was handed a ten-day ban, upheld in November last year, for shows that it telecast in 2012. The 2014 penalty was estimated to cost the channel around Rs60 lakh in revenue.

Towards the end of last year, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, the minister of state for information and broadcasting, made a rare public statement about the organisation. During an interview, he said that the EMMC would increase its monitoring capacity fivefold, from 300 television channels in 2014, to 1,500 channels by 2017. The government has also stated that it will add radio monitoring to the EMMC’s brief. It seems clear that there will soon be very little content broadcast over Indian airwaves that escapes state scrutiny.

The government’s attempt to exert control over television isn’t limited to supposedly obscene content. It has also targeted matter that it deems politically dangerous. In April, for instance, the ministry of information and broadcasting banned Al Jazeera News for five days for “cartographic aggression”—displaying a map of Kashmir that did not depict Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin as part of India. The most prominent recent example of such censorship occurred in early August, when the government served the news channel NDTV with a show-cause notice over its coverage of the case of Yakub Memon, who was executed in July for his involvement in a series of bombings in Mumbai in 1993, in which more than 250 people were killed. The channel, the notice said, “not only questioned the judicial system of India but tended to denigrate the very institution.” Similar notices were sent to two other channels, ABP and Aaj Tak, for airing telephone interviews with the gangster Chhota Shakeel.

NK Singh, the general secretary of the Broadcast Editors’ Association, is stinging in his criticism of these actions. “The notices were made on invented pretexts and are an example of the typical predatory instinct of the state machinery to hunt media freedom,” he said when I met him in September. He argued that the channels had violated no laws, and that they were within their rights to cover every aspect of the case. “If there was a contempt of court, why didn’t the court take cognisance against the channels?” he said. Prabhakar Kumar told me that though a scrutiny committee meeting was scheduled for mid August, the ministry chose to bypass its process with regard to the Yakub Memon coverage. Instead, on receiving reports of the telecasts from the EMMC, Kumar told me that “the ministry decided that it was a gross violation and action had to be taken immediately.”

At the EMMC office in Delhi, monitors note complaints about telecasts that contain potentially offensive material. A finalised list of those complaints is sent out to the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council.

In effect, this overrode the system of self-review, put in place over eight years, by the industry and the government together, whereby violations are sent to the scrutiny committee and then the BCCC or the NBA for action. In their replies to the show-cause notices, the channels raised this argument in protest. But Kumar said the government was not bound to adhere to this procedure. “Who decided these rules?” he said. “This was an only an informal arrangement formalised by the government. It’s up to the government to honour the sanctity of this arrangement.”

Singh believes that these moves are part of a broader push to prevent information from reaching the public. As another example, he referred to the 2015 amendment to the Cable TV Act, which made it illegal to telecast live coverage of all anti-terrorist operations, and limited permissible press access to an hourly briefing by an officer. “They want to confine journalism to a four-walled room,” said Singh, who believes that the Cable TV Act itself is against the spirit of the constitution. According to him, the amendment will make it difficult for journalists to verify basic facts, such as whether an individual who has been gunned down is, indeed, a “terrorist,” or a common criminal. “How can we sit quietly knowing that unverified people are being shot while the press waits for a briefing?” he said. Even the home ministry has asked bureaucrats to stop talking to journalists privately, keeping meetings limited to press briefings. “They are systematically trying to demolish all lateral interactions between the formal media and the government,” Singh said. “This has never happened in the past. What is the government afraid of?”

There has also been a striking change in tone and language in the government’s communications with channels, Singh pointed out. While the previous government typically sent “decently toned” advisories, the present government usually resorts to warnings and show-cause notices whose “tone itself is authoritarian.”

In response, many non-news channels are resorting to self-censorship to avoid confrontation. This has been particularly apparent in shows that feature explicit language. Much of Comedy Central’s Indian telecast of the comedy roast of the pop star Justin Bieber in April, for example, was unintelligible given the number of words bleeped out. Some broadcasters, however, such as the Tamil news channel Sathiyam TV, are willing to give the government a fight. In mid December last year, the information and broadcasting ministry sent the channel a show-cause notice for programmes that it had aired the previous week. In one, a preacher had exhorted a divine entity to remove a certain unnamed “satanic person” from the earth. The ministry claimed that this show “appeared to be targeting a political leader.” In another programme, a senior journalist discussed Narendra Modi’s apparent ability to make people believe false statements that he made. The ministry claimed that this “appeared to defame a person without any substantiation.”

In the early 2000s, Fashion TV was banned because, as Sushma Swaraj, then the information and broadcasting minister, said, “it does not synchronise with our culture.”
In the early 2000s, Fashion TV was banned because, as Sushma Swaraj, then the information and broadcasting minister, said, “it does not synchronise with our culture.”
In the early 2000s, Fashion TV was banned because, as Sushma Swaraj, then the information and broadcasting minister, said, “it does not synchronise with our culture.”

The channel wrote back to the ministry, arguing that there had been no specific mention of any particular leader in the former instance, while the latter was actually praise for the prime minister’s communication skills. It asked that the ministry treat the matter as resolved, without taking any further action. In early 2015, the government summoned the channel before an inter-ministerial committee. At the hearing, in February, the channel repeated its arguments before the committee. The government remained unconvinced, and sent the channel a formal warning in May. It followed this up with further notices in August, detailing three more supposed violations. The channel approached the Delhi High Court, asking it to quash the warning, but, in September, the court refused to do so. Three such warnings can result in a channel losing its licence.

The channel’s owner, Isaac Livingstone, has described the moves as “political censorship.”  “To be falsely accused of defamation,” Livingstone told me over email, “is very painful and makes us suspect vendetta.”

Some editors feel that the government’s pursuit of Sathiyam TV is clear evidence of its unreasonable aggression. “This government is vindictive and has been getting quite intolerant with any criticism,” NK Singh said. “It is unthinkable that a democratically elected government would try and interfere in the content of television channels.”

The government’s belligerence has made broadcasters nervous. “There’s no doubt,” Vir Sanghvi said, “about the fact that there happens to be a climate of fear now.”

television broadcasting exploded in India following the liberalisation of the country’s economy in the early 1990s. An unregulated cable television market emerged, which attracted a profusion of channels, and these started drawing massive audiences. The industry’s growing power soon became clear, and so began the contests over it. In December 1992, the BBC aired images of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Its pictures of kar sevaks—activists of the Hindu right—climbing atop the mosque and tearing it down provided a chilling record of the violence unleashed by Hindutva forces. Mark Tully, who was then the BBC’s bureau chief in Delhi, told me in August that “the telecast, to my knowledge, made the kar sevaks really angry. They went around telling journalists that they were going to smash up the BBC.” The BBC, Tully said, was seen as the foreign hand trying to meddle in Indian affairs. “And I used to argue that if you think India could be destabilised by a broadcasting organisation, then you have a pretty poor opinion about your own country.”

In the early 2000s, Fashion TV was banned because, as Sushma Swaraj, then the information and broadcasting minister, said, “it does not synchronise with our culture.”
In the early 2000s, Fashion TV was banned because, as Sushma Swaraj, then the information and broadcasting minister, said, “it does not synchronise with our culture.”

Besides news channels such as the BBC, a variety of entertainment channels also blossomed, as networks including Star, Zee, Sun and Asianet competed for shares of the burgeoning market. The influx of entertainment programming sparked anxieties about Indian culture being sullied by external influences. In 1994, the government instated the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Ordinance to regulate the industry. The ordinance included the Programme Code, a list of around 20 rules that outlined what content could not be screened. The code’s definitions were very broad and included some of the restrictions that apply to freedom of speech under Article 19(2) of the constitution. It banned content that, among other things, “offends against good taste and decency,” that “contains criticism of friendly countries” or “contains anything that affects the integrity of the nation.” In September the following year, the ordinance, and the rules under it, were ratified by parliament, making them a permanent part of Indian law. Those rules have remained unchanged in the intervening 20 years, even as the Indian television market has evolved into a behemoth—the third largest one in the world, after those in China and the United States.

Just months before parliament voted on the ordinance, in May 1994, came a furore that exacerbated conservative fears of television’s potential for subversion. The channel Star TV broadcast an episode of a talk show with a British-Indian host, Nikki Bedi. Bedi’s guest for the day, the gay rights activist Ashok Row Kavi, reminisced about using a slur to describe Mohandas Gandhi. This caused outrage—enough of it for the show to be cancelled, and for Bedi, Kavi and the producers to be threatened with criminal charges. Tremors from the incident also reached parliament, where legislators described the show as “an imperialist force” and an example of “cultural terrorism.” In a 2008 interview with the Times of India, Bedi said she “needed to have bodyguards and was advised to leave the country” before the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act was used on her.

After the passage of the Programme Code, the government began to repeatedly target television channels. In the early 2000s, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Sushma Swaraj, the current foreign minister and then the minister of information and broadcasting, led a charge against Fashion TV, saying that the channel, famous for its coverage of European catwalks, “does not synchronise with our culture.” The channel was banned for some time, until it promised to impose tighter controls on its content in India. In another notable instance, the government of Gujarat, then under Narendra Modi, used the Programme Code to block telecasts of the channel Star News during anti-Muslim pogroms in the state in 2002.

Such aggressive pursuit of censorship wasn’t limited to the Bharatiya Janata Party. During the first term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, which took power in 2004, the information and broadcasting minister, Priyaranjan Das Munshi, also handed down a ban to Fashion TV, as well as to the entertainment channel AXN. In 2005, the UPA attempted to set up state-level centres to monitor television content. Three years later, in 2008, the ministry of information and broadcasting circulated a note that stated that these centres had not been set up, and laid out fresh guidelines for doing so. But the implementation of those subsequent orders was inconsistent from one state to the next. That same year, however, saw the establishment of the EMMC, under the control of the central government. The organisation’s website traces its origins to the Central Monitoring Centre, an intelligence agency set up by the British Raj during the Second World War to track anti-war broadcasts on the radio. The CMC survived in independent India as a regulatory body, and, according to the website, its “activities (excluding content monitoring)” were taken over by the National Technical Research Organisation, also an intelligence agency. The EMMC, meanwhile, was mandated with detecting violations of the Programme Code.

The EMMC received particular attention from the executive after militants attacked Mumbai in November 2008. At the time, the News Broadcasters Association, a Delhi-based body that lobbies for private news and current-affairs channels, issued an advisory against broadcasting details of security forces’ operations. But three years later, one of the conspirators in the attacks, David Headley, confirmed what the government had feared: the militants’ handlers had gleaned details of the Indian forces’ response by watching news channels during the attacks.

Comedy Central’s telecast of the roast of Justin Bieber was nearly unintelligible given the number of words the network bleeped out, in selfcensorship michael tran / filmmagic / getty images

The television coverage of the attacks spurred a significant ramp-up of EMMC operations. Soon after, the organisation’s office switched, from regular working hours, to functioning around the clock. A new post, of “duty officer,” was established to complement those of the regular monitors. The duty officers, who, as of mid 2015, numbered six, are responsible for reading news tickers running on channels throughout the day, and sending SMS alerts of important developments to top officials in at least four government organs: the ministry of information and broadcasting, the home ministry, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Intelligence Bureau. (According to one monitor I spoke to, the prime minister’s office was added to this list after May 2014.) In fact, the government learnt of the supposedly objectionable Yakub Memon coverage from duty officers’ updates, despite the fact that EMMC monitors had not recorded any violations with regard to it.

Duty officers have to remain constantly alert. Failures to send alerts out on time have in the past resulted in officers losing their jobs. Rakesh Raushan, a 30-year-old EMMC monitor, told me that, in 2010, two duty officers were fired after they failed to immediately alert the government about an Air India flight that crashed in Mangalore.

The duty officers’ work has also brought the EMMC recognition. At 4 am on 12 July last year, duty officers caught a north-eastern channel breaking news of a bomb blast, suspected to be the work of militants, in west Imphal, and quickly passed the information to the prime minister’s office. An EMMC employee told me the centre received a letter of appreciation for this from the prime minister’s office a few weeks later. most emmc employees and officials that I spoke to were loath to reveal details about the structural changes within the office. One administrative officer told me that the organisation’s watch was going to expand to also include monitoring social media—a responsibility currently under the government’s New Media Wing, located on the fourth floor of Soochna Bhawan. According to Prabhakar Kumar, the scrutiny committee’s independent member, the government intends to have the two organisations work together more closely to keep “a collective watch upon social media, television and radio to establish a kind of control over all anti-government propaganda.” Since July last year, the EMMC and the New Media Wing have been headed by the same bureaucrat: LR Vishwanath, an officer of the 1987 batch of the Indian Information Service.

One afternoon in May, I took an elevator up to the tenth floor of Soochna Bhawan. When the elevator doors opened, I was greeted by a large sign that read “Newspaper representatives not allowed beyond this point.” Grim-faced security guards stood by the entrance to the EMMC office, and quizzed any visitors who approached.

Inside, the office had long corridors lined with glass cabins, in which monitors sat with their eyes glued to screens. One room was stacked with recording equipment that archived telecasts for later retrieval and further examination. Vishwanath, I learnt, sits not on the tenth floor, but on the fourth. When I made my way there and asked to speak to him, I was made to wait for ten minutes, after which his personal assistant told me a meeting would not be possible. “Sensitive hain, madam,” I was told, before being dismissed with an ingratiating smile. This reception was indicative of the organisation’s general reticence when it comes to the public. Prabhakar Kumar admitted that the EMMC has a culture of secrecy. Its officials, he said, “don’t want to give answers to the several questions that surround it.”

From conversations with the three current employees who spoke to me, I got the impression that the government is eager to keep a tight hold on what the media might say about it. The EMMC’s monthly report for July describes a new project for tracking the treatment of specific news stories by different channels over 12-hour periods. According to one monitor, coverage was broadly being divided into three categories—“anti-government, balanced and pro-government.” The monitor told me this initiative was a response to the circumstances of the UPA government’s last days in power. “Up until the end of the Congress regime,” he said, “the news cycle was constantly anti-government, which the government failed to manage towards the end, even with the Bharat Nirman campaign.”

An EMMC official claimed that under the UPA, the organisation had kept a watch on Ramdev’s Aastha channel, but that there was “no need for that now.”

The government’s approach to radio seems equally, if not more, anxious. In April, the Deccan Development Society, an NGO that helps run Sangham Radio, a community station run by illiterate women journalists in the Medak district of Telangana, received a letter asking for “recordings of all programmes broadcast on a daily basis from the date of the receipt of the letter along with log book.” Since then, the channel has, at its own cost, been sending DVDs of their programmes to the information and broadcasting ministry every three months. PV Satheesh, the director of the Deccan Development Society, told me over the phone that he believed that the government’s move stemmed from “suspicions of things that they don’t know about and an old mindset of running the broadcasting sector like they run AIR and Doordarshan.” He pointed out that since Sangham is an independent radio station, which does not receive any government funding, it is less susceptible to state pressure. “Those stations run partly or entirely on financial aid provided by the government may end up becoming its mouthpieces,” he said.

The government is especially interested in tracking media coverage of Modi’s monthly radio show, Mann Ki Baat, which is carefully monitored by the EMMC. According to Kumar, after each episode, “a report detailing which channels have broadcasted the show and for how long” is sent to the prime minister’s office. He believes that radio affords the prime minister the kind of “one-sided communication” he prefers. While “Modi is using the media to broadcast his message, he doesn’t need the media for the feedback,” he said. “He is using the EMMC’s monitors indirectly to get the feedback that he requires” on how his message is received. Ironically, the EMMC appears to have became a favoured place of work for people who trained to be journalists. All five of the current and former monitors I contacted happened to have either a degree or a diploma in journalism. The prospect of watching television at work had not initially appealed to some of them, but since it was a government job, my interviewees said, which paid between Rs20,000 and  Rs30,000 a month, they concluded it was a stable option, and signed up.

The hiring process for the EMMC is handled by a Noida-based government company called Broadcasts Engineering Consultant India Limited, or BECIL. Rather than advertising job openings in the media, they rely on word of mouth to reach prospective employees. The fact that BECIL is on the lookout for contractors on a rolling basis is generally shared only within social circles of the government and its official media. One monitor told me he heard of the opening from a former colleague at Doordarshan Guwahati, and another said he heard of it from an acquaintance at All India Radio, in Delhi. Generally, the monitors spoke of their work with pride. They see each notice or ban issued to a channel as an achievement. They also fondly recalled training periods when senior monitors taught them what they should and should not report. One recounted that trainees constantly posed situations to their seniors and asked, “Is this a violation?,” even when interacting informally, away from their desks.  One current EMMC employee, a graduate of Jamia Milia Islamia’s well-regarded mass-communication course, says on her LinkedIn page that it makes her “proud and happy to contribute to the society as a gate keeper and keep a check on powerful sectors of society, if they want to use media unfairly.”

One monitor, who is from Shillong and earlier worked as a film producer, described the job as “something better than nothing.” He pointed out that the work had begun to interfere with his regular television viewing. “At the back of my head now I’m constantly thinking about the Programme Code every time I watch TV at home,” he said.

Rakesh Raushan, the 30-year-old monitor who I spoke with, told me that after graduating with a degree in mass communication from a Delhi college in 2008, he failed to find success as a television reporter in the city. He has now been at the EMMC for six years, policing the same channels that once rejected his job applications. Recently, he was deputed to Shastri Bhawan, to the headquarters of the information and broadcasting ministry, to oversee the renewal of channels’ broadcasting permits.

This is a higher-profile posting, and, he joked, one that allowed him to watch Ravi Shankar Prasad, the minister of communications and information technology, “feed monkeys around Shastri Bhawan on some evenings.”

Raushan admitted to initially feeling uneasy with his work. “In the beginning, I used to think to myself that this was not the right place for me,” he said. “My place was out there among the reporters.” But now, he sees the EMMC job as a stroke of good fortune early in his career. As a measure of his success, he described how his job improved his language skills. “I haven’t been to a single spoken English class, but I have spent years watching English anchors read the news,” he said.

When I asked him about the changes in the organisation since the change in regimes, he only hinted at a new policy at EMMC on Aastha TV, a channel tied closely to the Hindu spiritual leader Baba Ramdev, who is close to the current BJP government. “At one time there used to be at least two monitors who kept a close watch on Aastha channel to find out if Baba was pushing propaganda along with pranayam,” he said. “There’s no need for that now.”