Mixed Media: Why this caste system in allowing foreign investment in broadcast?

The TRAI consultation paper on foreign investment in the broadcasting sector has raised the issue of the limit of international stake in non-entertainment television and radio. However, what’s needed is a sea change in approach, writes Pradyuman Maheshwari.

e4m by Pradyuman Maheshwari
Updated: Jan 19, 2010 7:25 AM
Mixed Media: Why this caste system in allowing foreign investment in broadcast?

It’s always good reading the various policy announcements and consultation papers of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Or for that matter most public documents of the government. If nothing else, they are good insights into the business and are recommended reading.

Last week, TRAI released a consultative paper on foreign investment in broadcast. More than the suggestion of hiking foreign direct investment in FM radio from 26 per cent to 49 per cent, the consultation paper is all about clearing the confusion on a ‘pressnote’ that the Commerce and Industry Ministry had released last year that could lead to complete foreign control of media companies where only say 49 per cent to 74 per cent is allowed. This is because the foreign equity in the holding company wasn’t counted in the end-calculation of the foreign ownership of a broadcast player.

Personally, I’m not too bothered about all of this. I have two peeves:

• Why does TRAI want foreign investment (FI) limit in entertainment FM radio limited to 49 per cent when that in entertainment television is 100 per cent?, and

• If the sensitive nature of content of news channels is the reason why FI in news channels is proposed to be only 49 per cent, why have no limits for non-news TV broadcasters when their content is also said to be equally sensitive. Remember the controversy around ‘Balika Vadhu’, ‘Sach Ka Saamna’ and the like?

TRAI issued the consultative paper on January 15 and expects stakeholders to react within 15 days. Most of the media players are interested in the clarity on downstream investment and ensuring that all direct and indirect foreign investment is kept under check, but since the issue has been raised and could eventually get ratified by the Cabinet/ Government and Parliament, there is need to rethink on the two points raised above.

Radio, according to me, has been much-neglected because television and print take away all the mindspace. There needs to be complete parity between the permission given to entertainment and/or news television and the FM stations. While I agree that news is exceedingly sensitive and we obviously do not want international media magnates to influence our country’s affairs, the existence of 26-49 per cent stake is enough to dictate terms anyway. Also, it’s not that the foreign investment in GECs has impacted the moral fabric of the country. Or perhaps it has, and that’s why we have had an endless dose of saas-bahu and reality shows.

International ownership has really no bearing on ethics and standards followed. Look at the paid news service that certain news organisations are alleged to be practising. Most of these are 100 per cent Indian. So, just being desi doesn’t necessarily ensure that everything will be above-board.

It’s critical for TRAI and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to take a progressive and pragmatic view on the issue. There are enough checks and balances in India. If any media company strays, it can be blacklisted, banned and banished. I&B Minister Ambika Soni, Secretary Raghu Menon and TRAI Chairman JS Sarma need to ensure they don’t get swayed by lobbies and people who only have their own interests to protect and push.

(The views expressed here are my own. Don’t agree with what’s written here? Post your comments below or mail me at mixedmedia@exchange4media.com or tweet me at @pmahesh.)

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