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Remote Control

A secretive government organisation watches over Indian television

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.”

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.

Ankita Chakraborty is a freelance journalist who lives in Delhi.

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