Bombay High Court asked Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) if it was willing to adjourn the implementation of the amended TV channel pricing regulations by one month.
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New Tariff Order (NTO 2.0) rules were notified by TRAI on 1st January 2020 and are supposed to come into effect on 1st March 2020. The broadcasters challenged the rules two weeks after they were notified, and have not yet been able to get a stay on the matter as they did when the first version of the rules were brought out in 2017.
Actually there are few changes in the bench hearing a petition against the new rules filed by Indian Broadcasting Foundation and some industry stakeholders. The judges who have been hearing the matter for the last 6 weeks were changed due to various reasons, including the transfer of the senior judge and two new judges have started hearing the case.
The new bench has agreed to continue hearing the matter on 27 February, 2020 indicating that the court is seized of the urgency of the matter.
Appearing for Star India, former Attorney General of India Mukul Rohatgi argued that TRAI can’t regulate content and it has no additional jurisdiction over broadcasters. In his counter, TRAI counsel Venkatesh Dhond said that the NTO 2.0 is well thought out modifications after elaborate consultation with all stakeholders. He also stated that the broadcasters cannot take undue advantage of own action and seek interim relief.
Broadcasters argued that they are not ready for the implementation process and need more time. The court has asked TRAI’s lawyers to state the position of the regulator as far as the implementation of the rules from 1st March 2020.
Earlier, the Bombay High Court had adjourned the matter to 26th February. The Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) along with Star India, ZEEL, TV18, Viacom18, Sony Pictures Networks India (SPNI), Zoom Entertainment and Film & Television Producers Guild of India have challenged the TRAI’s new amendments stating that they infringe on their fundamental rights.
However, none of the High Courts have so far granted any stay, and the deadline for the implementation of the new rules is now only three days away. TRAI is faced with a difficult choice in terms of agreeing to postpone the implementation of the rules by a month or not.
If TRAI agrees to postpone the matter by a month, the chances of one or the other court issuing a stay increases exponentially. On the other hand, if it doesn’t agree to relax its stand, it may come across as inflexible and inconsiderate in front of the court.
As such, the regulator is likely to offer a compromise solution, such as allowing Cable & DTH operators to continue to offer their packages and plans, as long as they drop channels priced above Rs 12 per month.
Broadcasters, on the other hand, are hoping that TRAI will express a willingness to defer the implementation of the order — particularly the part where they have to cut the prices of popular channels from Rs 19 to Rs 12 or remove them from packs.
In the previous hearing on 30th January, the bench of Justice RI Chagla and SC Dharmadhikari had admitted the petitions filed by IBF and other broadcasters after hearing both sides and finding that there are arguable questions raised.
The bench had posted the matter for hearing on 12th February since the parties had agreed that even for interim relief detailed arguments would have to be canvassed by both sides. The understanding was that the court would proceed to hear the petitions finally.
In a brief order, the Bombay High Court had also stated that, if for some reason, the petitions could not be disposed of before 1st March, the petitioners will be at liberty to apply for interim relief.
As the constitutional validity of some provisions of the parent Act and the Rules framed thereunder, is challenged, the court had asked the registry to cause a notice to be issued to the learned Attorney General of India.