India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting doesn’t formulate all the rules by itself. When there are sensitive issues at play, it leans on the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), a body set up to “create and nurture conditions for growth of telecommunications in the country”.
The TRAI’s objective is to make India “play a leading role in the emerging global information society” and hence, it made awful sense to include telecom and information and broadcasting under one regulator. But I find that the organisation that formulated pathbreaking policies for the telecom sector in India has regrettably played into the hands of lobbies and advised regressive policies for the broadcast sector.
While one can’t be sure if the proposed Broadcast Authority of India would serve as a better regulator, but it’s critical for any authority to take a longer term, progressive view of the information economy rather than advise shortsighted measures that help a few.
We all know there are several vested interests at play. Large media conglomerates who feel threatened by organisations with greater access to foreign funds are the biggest lobbyists. They are aided by smaller setups, which fear being wiped out if the big, international players enter the fray.
The result: outlandish reasons given for stalling greater foreign capital in news television and radio. Radio, it is argued, is as sensitive as news and also doesn’t require much monies.
Well, the same argument would then be applicable for non-news television channels too, for, even though the investments are large, it’s not that it’s out of the reach of desi business biggies. Bottomline: if a Star Plus can have 100 per cent foreign equity, why can’t FM networks such as Radio One or Big 92.7, which do not air current affairs, be allowed the same.
There are larger ills afflicting the trade and have been crying for the attention of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The abysmally high carriage fees that broadcasters are forced to cough up so that they are watched by all. Cross-ownership of media is another and is seen to be leading to monopolistic practices. My other peeve: the need to closely monitor editorial practices of media organisations and revoke benefits accorded to players in incorrect acts.
Save a few large players, most in the FM radio sector are crying for the dice not to be so heavily loaded against them. Part of the problem is that its lobbyists aren’t strong enough as those in print and television. Or even if they are, it appears they’d rather lock horns with the government over bigger battles. News on FM has thus been a casualty and now the infusion of foreign equity. Sigh.
What next? It’s not mandatory for the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to accept and follow any of the TRAI’s advisories. However, since the Minister and bureaucrats are answerable to elected representatives, the likelihood of the Government rejecting the recommendations is very low. It can at most throw back the recommendations and ask the regulator to relook at its suggestions.
Moreover, the Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government is already facing much heat due to rising prices and would not like to upset the big boys in the media at this stage. So don’t expect too much action on this front for now.
The lobbyists seemed to have done their job well for now and I’m sure they will continue to do so until governments don’t take the bold measures.
(The views expressed here are personal. Post your comments below or reach the writer via mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @pmahesh.)