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Reporter’s diary: Chase for economic freedom

27-October-2012
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Reporter’s diary: Chase for economic freedom

A globalised Indian wakes up to the compelling content of the Financial Times, shapes his ideas according to the Economist, prefers the thought-provoking news from BBC, sings to the tune of Madonna on the global FM channel and still has doubts over FDI in media being a boon or bane.

Whether FDI in media is an evil remains a big question in the minds of every Indian. However, the so-called 'Swadeshis', who have been the greatest supporters of western culture, ridicule the government for allowing FDI in media and want India to go back to the age of bullock carts. Albert Camus has rightly pointed that, ‘Freedom of the press is perhaps the freedom that has suffered the most from the gradual degradation of the idea of liberty’.

Some experts are of the view that media is a ‘sensitive area’ and reporting by  foreigners might lead to disharmony but it cannot be ignored that defence and the atomic sector has allowed FDI and more economic freedom to the media cannot be a security threat to the nation. What is it that makes media more ‘sensitive’ than defence and atomic energy? Media is not a commodity but a vibrant institution that has enormous power to shape public opinion and create societal awakening. It plays a crucial role in channelising information to the audience so that they make informed decisions. Indian media is on a high growth trajectory and serves as a popular destination for FDI. According to experts, media and entertainment industry of India is expected to grow by 18 per cent over the next five years. This clearly contradicts the views of the first Press Commission which said that the newspaper was not a very attractive investment destination.

FDI impacts the growth of a developing country and generates positive externalities in the form of technology transfers, stimulates investment and enhances productivity. FDI in media has helped in reviving the sector with a host of fresh ideas and providing financial comfort to upgrade technology and attract skilled manpower. Freedom from government regulations has always helped in flow of unbiased information. But reforms in the sector have always been incomplete, which has lead to the formation of oligopolies. Concentration of power in the hands of a few family-led organisations has created an appalling condition for both, media companies and journalists.

However, it is not easy for promoters to raise additional funding for the necessary up gradation without the help of any foreign player. The media has not been able to report objectively on a lot of capitalists and politicians because the companies are owned by these giants. The fight for attaining the top position has led to aggressive price mechanisms and growing number of supplements to attract advertisers. By providing greater economic freedom, more competition will be generated and the advertising revenues will be distributed among several players. This will also lead to the growth of small players by getting some portion of the advertising pie.

The global companies have transparent standards and ethics, which generate healthy competition and ensure higher quality of propagation of information in an unbiased manner. With more and more inflows from foreign sources, the media houses will become less dependent on the government and this will help in avoiding manipulated news.

With the privatisation of electronic media in Bangladesh, the media houses have started thinking freely and most of the leading newspapers derive 70-90 per cent of their advertising revenue from the private sector. Alan Bath has truly said, ‘The notion that the church, the press, and the universities should serve the state is essentially a Communist notion. In a free society these institutions must be wholly free – which is to say that their function is to serve as checks upon the state’.

Increased competition on entry of global players will bring in young and fresh talent, which will lead to diversity of opinion about the issues of the day and reduce the common practice of paid news. In this age of convergence, when news is circulated through internet and mobile phones, it is unrealistic to think of restrictions on FDI. In order to inject life into the slowing economy, India recently approved a $180 million foreign direct investment plan by US media group Walt Disney.

Hence, it is inappropriate to believe in the history of the ‘banana republics’ and still think of India as a country that can fall prey to subtle manipulation by a foreign investor. For a vibrant fourth pillar of democracy with advanced technology, enhanced quality and greater financial independence, the media sector needs more economic freedom.

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