In an episode of Last Week Tonight that aired on HBO yesterday, comedian John Oliver addressed Hotstar’s censorship of the show in India. Two weeks ago, the streaming service chose not to upload an episode of the show that focused on India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Hotstar has maintained a strict silence on the issue to customers and journalists, and despite requests for comment, we haven’t heard from them. It is unclear if the episode, due tomorrow on Hotstar, will release in India. MediaNama has reached out to Hotstar for comment, but we’re not expecting much here.

“As best we can tell, Hotstar just decided to self-censor [our episode], which is still not good,” Oliver said. He went on to cite other times when the service censored clips for making fun of Disney characters (Disney owns Hotstar), joking that the show would now be doubling down on such jokes.

Questions for Disney

Given that Hotstar isn’t responding to requests for comments, we’ve written to Disney asking for responses to the following questions:

  1. Did Disney direct the censorship of the episodes in India? If not, was Disney US informed of Hotstar’s intention to censor these episodes?
  2. Did Disney direct STAR to not release the Last Week Tonight episode on Prime Minister Modi? If not, did Hostar/STAR inform Disney of its decision to not release the episode?
  3. What are Disney’s norms for censorship of criticism of Disney and Disney characters by its affiliated/subsidiary businesses?
  4. What are Disney’s norms for not releasing shows/content that may be critical of political figures in a particular country? Do these apply to Hotstar?

Hotstar pushes for OTT regulation

In a way, Hotstar’s censorship of Last Week Tonight makes sense considering the company’s latest moves in content regulation. Hotstar has been a key company pushing for the industry to create a self-regulatory organisation that Indian viewers can complain to that has the power to penalise individual streaming services.

Without the government’s explicit interest in regulating curated streaming services like Hotstar, the company, along with two others, has pushed strongly to create such a self-regulatory body with broad terms, like TV’s Broadcast Content Complaints Council. The streaming services’ equivalent is called the Digital Content Complaints Council. The BCCC and the proposed DCCC are similar in the sense that they are both open-ended, and in theory not very restrictive. But in practice, the BCCC’s mere presence — in spite of being perceived as a liberal organisation — has led to over-censorship on TV channels. In October, we had explored how a similar code would affect streaming services like Netflix.

Hotstar’s censorship of the Modi episode — which doesn’t violate any of the broad conditions in the DCCC — is an indicator that Hotstar will, like TV channels, over-interpret this code, and leave the door to censure if other streaming services don’t do the same.

In effect, a vague prohibition on promoting terrorism and insulting national symbols could lead to censoring any sort of political speech, as it has arguably happened with the censorship of Last Week Tonight.

Services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are reportedly resisting the breakneck speed at which services like Hotstar are moving to impose these shackles on themselves, but it may yet be too late. The I&B Ministry has given streaming services 100 days to create the DCCC. It’s anyone’s guess what a streaming landscape after this body’s creation will look like. But in Hotstar’s case, we already have the answer.