Indian media needs to be freed from politicians

Last Updated: Tue, Jan 15, 2013 03:23 hrs

Last month the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or Trai, finally set the cat among the pigeons. It recommended for the second time in four years that state or central governments or their joint ventures with any other body should not be allowed into the business of broadcasting or distribution of television channels. And if such entities already exist in the business, they should be provided with an exit. It also recommended that the arm’s length relationship between Prasar Bharati, which runs Doordarshan (DD) and All India Radio (AIR), and the government should be strengthened through measures that ensure “functional” autonomy.

Trai is the regulator for the Rs 34,000-crore television industry. Its recommendations are just that — recommendations. They become the law only when policy makers at the ministry of information and broadcasting take them seriously.

They should. It would do wonders for the business of television and for the freedom of the media in India. For too long the whole media debate has centred around news content. There has been very little talk about the structure of the business, changing ownership patterns and how that vitiates everything, including content.

Here is my favourite example. Of India’s 140-odd news channels, roughly one-third are owned by politicians, political parties or by “entities” (as the Trai paper calls them) not interested in building a news brand. These are just political vehicles and influence peddlers. As a result, companies that want to make money by running a proper news outfit end up competing with ones that have no shareholders to answer to. This hyper-competition is forcing everybody into a race to the bottom on standards.

You could argue that there is nothing wrong if state governments or the regional/national parties that run them own media as long as people have other options.

It doesn’t quite work that way.

Fastway, the leading cable company in Punjab, is owned in part by the ruling Badal family. The Competition Commission of India imposed a fine on Fastway last year for blocking Day & Night News, an independent channel. In Tamil Nadu, Kalanithi Maran, related to the DMK leader M Karunanidhi, owns the dominant TV (Sun), direct-to-home (Sun Direct) and cable distribution (Sumangali) companies. Arasu, a state-owned cable distribution company, was born when Mr Karunanidhi was at loggerheads with Mr Maran. Later, J Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK, who is now chief minister, simply appropriated it for the same reason.

There are dozens of such examples, from Kerala, Odisha, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh among other states. So the evidence that state governments, regional parties or political outfits are not “fit” to own media is piling up. That is why their ownership is controlled in most countries across the world. Where they are allowed, in Australia or the US, a strong independent regulator monitors them. India, however, does not have the same political and economic maturity. Can you imagine a regulator telling Sun News that it cannot keep glorifying Mr Karunanidhi?

Then there is the law. The privatisation of television in India occurred on the back of a landmark judgment by the Supreme Court. On a suit filed by the ministry of information and broadcasting against the Cricket Association of Bengal for the telecast rights of the Hero Cup in 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that airwaves were not the monopoly of the Indian government; they were public property and should be used to foster plurality and diversity of views, opinions and ideas. This, it said, was implicit in Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution, granting the right of free speech to citizens.

It was after this judgment that the government quickly notified the Prasar Bharati Bill, granting autonomy to DD and AIR in 1997. It had been putting this off for almost two decades. The Akash Bharti Bill had been presented in Parliament in 1978; it lapsed. It was passed many years later in 1990 as the Prasar Bharati Bill, but was conveniently not notified. So whether it is the Centre or the state, the power of the media is something everyone wants to harness.

“Diversity of ownership of media is not sufficient per se to ensure pluralism of content. The basic objective of the entity which owns a particular broadcast channel can be said to influence the contents of such a channel,” says a 2008 Trai paper. The paper had argued against allowing state or local governments in broadcasting or television distribution. Just like the Draft Broadcasting Bill (1997), from which it borrowed heavily, it did not see the light of day. Now requests from the Delhi government, the ministry of human resource development and the government of Tamil Nadu, among others, have prompted a relook.

Here is the final argument against it. The only reason any government should own the media is for public service broadcasting. Prasar Bharati caters to that need. It has separate satellite TV channels in almost all national languages. You could argue about its efficacy, but the platform exists. Prasar Bharati takes away anywhere between Rs 1,500 crore and Rs 1,800 crore of taxpayer money in subsidies in a year, with little to show for it. Why, then, should you and I foot the bill for more media that various governments want for their own purposes?

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