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Is the party over for Indian streaming platforms?

It seems likely that the OTT space will, for the first time, have to deal with the government telling them what they can or can’t say and show

Netflix's 'Leila' is just one of the streaming shows which came in for calls for censorship and banning

On 27 May, #CensorWebSeries trended on Twitter. Mobile and digital news portal Medianama reported then that it “seems like a concerted campaign... [with] more than 65,000 mentions today alone. The accounts receiving the most engagement under the trend so far are right wing organisations like the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti; Hindu nationalist publishers’ group Sanatan Prabhat, and several individuals with bios along the same lines.”

Such calls to ban online shows and platforms have been common in the last few years. Series like Sacred Games and Leila (Netflix), The Family Man and Paatal Lok (Amazon Prime Video) have all inspired campaigns of varying intensity—mostly from deeply conservative groups—to see them censored or banned. Objecting to The Family Man, Hitesh Shankar, editor of Panchajanya, a publication affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), told The Hindu in September last year: “There has to be some oversight, some mechanism through which this kind of content cannot make its way to screens in this country.”

It seems the disparate protests have borne fruit, with a government order bringing all online content under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B). The notification specified that “films and audio-visual programmes made available by online content providers” and “news and current affairs content on online platforms” would be under the ministry’s ambit. This was done by amending the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961 under the powers conferred by Article 77(3) of the Constitution (which gives the President power to change rules for convenient business transactions for the government). The changes will see immediate effect.

This move can be seen as the culmination of increasing interest shown by the government in regulating online content. In March, the I&B ministry under Prakash Javadekar gave OTT players 100 days to set up an adjudicatory body and finalise a code of conduct. In September, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI)—a group of 15 streaming players that includes Netflix, ALTBalaji and Disney+ Hotstar—signed a code of self-regulation. However, in an interview with The Indian Express in October, Javadekar said no credible mechanism had been worked out. He also said, “We don’t censor. We believe in self-regulation.”

Javadekar’s words notwithstanding, it seems likely that the OTT space will, for the first time, have to deal with the government telling them what they can or can’t say and show. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is under the I&B ministry, so it’s likely streaming films will need a censor certificate before release. What will happen to streaming shows remains to be seen, but given how the demands for censorship by right-leaning groups most often focused on the purportedly "anti-Hindu" Leila and Sacred Games, it’s quite possible they will face some form of censorship too (foreign OTT content—already self-censored on occasion—might be similarly impacted).

The emergence of acclaimed streaming series in the last couple of years is largely a result of the freedom afforded to their makers from censorship. It is difficult to see how shows like Paatal Lok, Sacred Games, Made in Heaven, The Family Man or Mirzapur can continue being made with the sort of opaque and stringent rules that govern our theatrical releases. Indian streaming TV was just coming into its own. But the party might already be over.

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