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Experts divided over TRAI's move on cross media ownership

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Experts divided over TRAI's move on cross media ownership

Strong opinions have emerged in the media industry – both for and against – the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) initiatives regarding cross media ownership in the country. It may be recalled that TRAI had organised an open house discussion with stakeholders on June 29, 2013 regarding the ratings issue and cross media ownership.

The regulator has now completed consultations on the matter of media ownership and cross holdings with stakeholders, and is now working on finalising the guidelines to curb electronic and print media. These guidelines may highlight the declaration of ownership by all owners, wherein they need to declare their stakes in various media houses.

Restrictions exist in many forms in many countries
Sharing his opinion on the entire issue of cross media ownership, Uday Varma, Former Secretary, MIB said, “The idea or notion of imposing or enforcing cross media restrictions is neither new nor the first to be introduced in India. Such restrictions exist in many forms in many countries.”

Varma explained, “Cross media regulation could be horizontal or vertical or even both. Horizontal restrictions mean restrictions across different segments of media, viz. print, TV and radio; while vertical restriction imply restriction within one segment, for example, restrictions among cable, DTH and terrestrial platforms or even between channels and carriers. The need is to examine the whole issue comprehensively. An added complication will be the evolution and growth of a variety of other means of communication/ broadcast, collectively known as social media.”

On the issue of necessity of controlling cross media ownership, he said, “The necessity to impose such restrictions arise out of concern of monopoly and manipulation of public information and perception by entities that may control all segments of media, either wholly or substantially. There have been instances, many quite recent, that strengthen such apprehension. Such a situation in a growing democracy could be disastrous.”

“On the other hand, cross media restrictions may impede fast and strong growth of segments of media. It may also be argued that such restrictions will also raise issues of efficiency and inhibiting sub optimal expansion of media and media services,” Varma added.

When asked about the challenges, he replied, “India needs to evolve her own unique policy on this issue, taking into account her idiosyncratic factors and circumstances. A borrowed model may not serve the purpose. One also needs to rake a balanced view after considering  arguments made on behalf of the two extreme positions as also many other opinions falling in between.”

Not in TRAI’s jurisdiction to judge media ownership
Disagreeing with the current demands of the telecom regulator, Rohit Bansal, CEO and Co-Founder, India Strategy Group, Hammurabi & Solomon Consulting remarked, “Conceptually, I don’t see the legal basis in the reference made to TRAI. Since when is it TRAI’s jurisdiction to be sitting in judgement over media ownership?”

Bansal further asked, “These messiahs of ‘plurality’ not see an elephant in the room called the internet – the mother of ‘plurality’ among print, television, radio, broadcast distribution platforms, smart phones and the social media? If they do, how about eschewing the smokescreen of ‘plurality’ and setting the telecom terrier tilting at owners of the Internet!”

Positive step in establishing transparency
Meanwhile, supporting the regulator’s move, John Thomas, Former Editor, Operations, Vijay Times Bangalore said, “TRAI’s notification is a positive step in establishing transparency in the system. Because the media publishes news, and the same may be taken as a product if a media company has an interest in any corporation. I believe that in a step ahead, even journalists should declare their interests in the form of equity shares in any company so that a reader knows that the publisher or writer of this particular issue has an interest in the sector.”

On the question of the timing of TRAI’s notification, Thomas said, “It should have come a long time back, but better late than never.”

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