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TRAI seeks barring political & religious bodies from entering public broadcasting

13-November-2008
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TRAI seeks barring political & religious bodies from entering public broadcasting

TRAI has made it clear that state governments, local bodies, political parties and religious bodies would not be allowed to enter the field of public broadcasting and distribution activities such as cable services, DTH, etc. The regulator made this statement as part of its recommendations on issues relating to entry of certain entities into broadcasting and distribution activities.

The I&B Ministry had requested TRAI, by its reference dated December 27, 2007, to examine the matter of allowing certain entities, including state governments, urban and local bodies, 3-tier Panchayati Raj bodies, publicly funded bodies, political bodies and religious bodies to foray into broadcasting activities, which may include starting of broadcast channels or entering into distribution platforms such as cable services, DTH, etc.

TRAI had released a Consultation Paper on February 25, 2008, on the issues arising out of the reference. The Consultation Paper covered issues such as to whether it would be in the interest of the broadcasting sector and in the interest of the public at large to permit the Union Government and its organs, the State Governments and their organs, urban and rural local bodies, political bodies, religious bodies, etc., to enter into broadcasting activities and distribution activities like cable TV, DTH, etc. The Consultation Paper also raised the issue whether permitting the State Governments and their enterprises to enter into broadcasting sector would have an impact on the Centre-State Relationship and the inter-se relationship among the states, etc.

The Authority has taken note of the fact that at present, State Governments, urban and rural local bodies, etc., have not been permitted to enter into broadcasting activities. After considering the relevant Constitutional provisions, the Constituent Assembly debates, the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission and the judgments of the Supreme Court, and feedback received from the stakeholders, TRAI has recommended that the present position as regards the entry of these entities may be allowed to continue. TRAI has also recommended that the aspirations of the State Governments as regards broadcasting should be adequately met by Prasar Bharati.

TRAI has recommended that certain public service broadcasting obligations be imposed on the broadcasters in the country. The preparation of content for public service broadcasting may be done by individuals, including private broadcasters, NGOs, social action groups, etc., in addition to Prasar Bharati, DAVP, State Governments and their organs. The Government of India (I&B Ministry) may set up a regular body to approve and certify programmes as being fit for broadcast as part of the public service broadcasting (PSB) obligation. As a beginning in this direction, every private broadcaster may be mandated to carry such approved programmes at least for a total duration of 30 minutes in a week.

In order to provide funds for such public service broadcasting programmes, TRAI has further recommended to establish a fund, to be known as the Public Service Broadcasting Obligation Fund, on similar lines of the Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund in the telecom sector, and imposing an annual Public Service Broadcasting Obligation levy on private broadcasters in the country and a predetermined share from the percentage of gross revenue being paid by the identified stakeholders in the broadcasting sector.

TRAI has further recommended that political bodies should not be allowed to enter into broadcasting activities and has accordingly recommended that the disqualifications, as contained in the relevant provisions of the Broadcasting Bill, 1997 (which could not be enacted into law) as regards political bodies, be incorporated in the proposed legislation on broadcasting. However, keeping in mind the importance of the free flow of information to the public during the electoral process, the Authority has recommended that broadcasting channels provide “reasonable access” to recognised political parties during the run up to elections to the Parliament and to the State Legislative Assemblies. The Government of India (I&B Ministry) may seek the guidance of the Election Commission of India and frame appropriate guidelines in this regard.

The regulator has recommended that religious bodies may not be permitted to own their own broadcasting stations and teleports. This would be in conformity with the secular fabric of the Constitution. TRAI has, accordingly, recommended that the disqualifications as contained in the relevant provisions of the Broadcasting Bill, 1997, as regards disqualification of religious bodies, may be incorporated in the proposed new legislation on broadcasting. However, such disqualification should not be construed to mean that a religious content in the broadcasting channels is to be disallowed. Such religious content should be in conformity with the appropriate content code or programme code as prescribed from time to time by the Government. In case permission has earlier been granted to such a religious body for a television channel, then the recommendations provide for an appropriate exit route within a time limit of 3-4 years to such religious bodies.

As regards the entry of State Governments into the distribution platform such as cable TV, DTH, etc., TRAI has noted that there are already six DTH operators, about 6,000 multi-system operators and nearly 60,000 cable operators. Such being the case, and in the interest of fair competition, and also considering the need to ensure proper enforcement mechanism equally applicable to all the players in the field, TRAI has recommended that the State Governments and their organs should stay away from distribution activities. Suitable provisions for exit route within 3-4 years have been provided wherever State Governments and their organs have entered such distribution activity. For similar reasons, and in order to prevent misuse of distribution platforms by any of the players on political or other considerations and also the need to prevent any problems relating to enforcement measures against the service providers involved, TRAI has recommended that urban and local bodies, political bodies, religious bodies and other publicly funded bodies may not be permitted into distribution activities like cable television, DTH, etc.

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