The West Bengal government has decided to “come to the rescue” of 168 journalists abruptly thrown out of employment after two TV channels closed down some months back.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee recently said she was moved by the “tearful announcement” of the closure of the channels on ‘Poila Boisakh’ (first day of the Bengali New Year) and decided to take over the channels on “humanitarian grounds”. She also announced an immediate ex-gratia payment Rs 16,000 per head for these hapless TV journalists who are now rejoicing.
The channels in question are Tara Newz and Tara Muzik, owned by the now-defunct Saradha Group whose top boss Sudipto Sen is behind bars on charges of cheating hundreds of thousands of small investors who had invested in his chit fund.
The founder of these two TV start-ups was the veteran journalist, Ratikanta Basu. He has hailed the decision as a “humanitarian act”. He recounted that it was difficult for him to run the show by disbursing about Rs 2 crore per month to the employees on its payrolls. He developed the viewership with loyal audiences in Bangladesh and overseas Indians residing in Europe and America.
Basu had sold off these two titles to the Saradha owner for an undisclosed amount. Basu bemoaned the fact that Sen took no interest in running the specialised agencies and did not even once set foot in their offices. Sen, in fact, managed the channels through his henchmen Kunal Ghosh and Indrajit Roy. But they were not professionally and competently managed. The viewer loyalty was their strength.
The staff had made tearful appeals to this segment for support to save their livelihood which was at stake. The appeal was broadcast live on April 15 which was supposed to be their last day at work.
The state government statement added that past liabilities would not be taken over. There was no mention of any similar takeover of the similarly affected media outfits which have since closed down: Saradha-owned English daily Bengal Post and Bengali daily Sakalbela. No such tears were shed for them nor any ad hoc help extended to them on “humanitarian grounds”.
While the state’s main opposition CPI (M) has slammed the move, saying it is a bid to get the employees to withdraw charges against the owner, the Congress party has claimed that the Chief Minister is doing it with the ulterior motive of publicity. But, Mamata Banerjee is apparently unfazed.
Political criticisms apart, the announcements of the takeover of the two TV channels by the West Bengal government were couched in legal jargon. It sought to justify the takeover in “public interest” in accordance with Article 31A (B) of the Constitution of India. The precedent cited was the takeover of the Great Eastern Hotel (Taking Over of Management) Act, 1975.
There are other precedents as well. In 1974, the then Siddhartha Shankar Ray-lead Congress government had taken over the Bengali daily newspaper Basumati. The Left Front had similarly supported another Bengali daily Satyayug which was struggling for survival.
The legalese mulled by the state government stated that a Bill would be moved before the legislature in conformity with the said provision of the Constitution and sent to the President for his assent which will enable the state to take over the managing committees of the channels. This, despite the fact that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommended that the central and state governments should not enter the business of broadcasting.
Even the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s uplinking and downlinking guidelines mandate that a TV channel can only be operated by a company registered under the Companies Act. “We don’t know all the details of the West Bengal government’s proposal but under the current rules a licensee cannot be a government entity,” Uday K Varma, the I&B secretary, told the media in the wake of the state government’s proposal.
He added that broadcasting was on the union list and only the central government was authorized to make laws on the subject.
Public memory is proverbially short. But some do have good memories. I am provoked to hark back to the dark days of the Emergency years (1975-77). The sole TV channel of those times was Doordarshan. Many such members of the public are thus livid at the vivid memories evoked. Such outpouring of dictatorial state propaganda was done then.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” goes the adage. The state government’s logic is very simple to read. How many voters can read? How many can afford to buy newspapers? Not many. The TV broadcast has a wider footprint than the print media. The government and the ruling Trinamool Congress party has seen to it that the ubiquitous street corner clubs have been duly equipped with the idiot box. What an opportunity at the most opportune moment!
With the general public at all segments and at all levels seething with anger at the whimsical, incompetent and corrupt state administration, two tools in the shape of two visual media entities thrust into the lap of the cornered regime. Two ready mouthpieces. Two channels of propaganda. Oh! Too tempting to resist the consensual copulation. Oh! To be the “humanitarian” now that the Panchyat elections are round the corner, the administrative filibuster notwithstanding.
The recent High Court in Kolkata verdict has seen to that. The Election Commission could not be browbeaten into deferring the elections any further. A pair of handguns comes handy, dripping with crocodile tears.
The state government will not bear the liabilities amounting to over Rs 6 crore. The government will only be the opportunistic user of the assets. And thereafter dispose off. Use-n-throw!
That’s not possible, Madam Chief Minister.