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I&B Ministry’s draft Cinematograph Bill 2021 proposes more powers for government to censor films

In a significant move to tighten censorship of films, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) is proposing a change in the Cinematograph Act to let the government review films that have already been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification. The Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill 2021, which is mainly being positioned as a legislative step to punish film piracy more severely, proposes:

Adding a provison to sub-section (1) of section 6 for granting revisionary powers to the Government on account of violation of Section 5B(1) of the Act: Since the provisions of Section 5B(1) are derived from Article 19(2) of the Constitution and are non-negotiable, it is also proposed in the Draft Bill to add a proviso to sub-section (1) of section 6 to the effect that on receipt of any references by the Central Government in respect of a film certified for public exhibition, on account of violation of Section 5B(1) of the Act, the Central Government may, if it considers it necessary so to do, direct the Chairman of the Board to re-examine the film.

Essentially, the government would have power over the Censor Board’s decisions directly, though the body is supposed to be run autonomously. While India is one of the few democracies that continues to follow overbearingly noticeable pre-censorship norms that frequently gets some content cut from films, this move would likely undermine any progressive trends in the CBFC.

The Censor Board censored less heavily when Leela Samson was chairperson. After her departure, the two chiefs who followed her, Pahlaj Nihalani and Prasoon Joshi, have presided over a starkly restrictive environment for filmmakers. The Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, which heard appeals from filmmakers and often ruled in filmmakers’ favour, has been abolished as well.

As the government itself notes in the notice inviting comments on the draft amendment bill, courts have struck down the post-facto censorship provision that used to exist in the Cinematograph Act previously. Now, with this amendment, the government is reinstating that provision through legislation; it’s unclear what exactly would be different here, as the struck-off provision was part of the parent legislation too, and not a subordinate legislation that was easier to hold unconstitutional.

This, along with the Information Technology (Intermediary Liability Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, constitutes an unprecedented level of scrutiny on media freedom in recent memory. Films are subject to pre-censorship and post-facto censorship as well. Web series and movies premiered online are subject to being censored after they start streaming, and that’s assuming streaming services themselves don’t scrub content clean of anything that might get them into trouble beforehand.

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The Cinematograph Amendment also adds the age ratings currently in force for streaming services — U/A 13+ and U/A 16+ — on top of the current U, U/A, and A.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

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