Television

Star the focus as IMG petitions Vajpayee to crack down

NEW DELHI: Star dabao, desh bachao (suppress Star and save the country). This seems to be the clarion call of the Indian Media Group (IMG), an organisation made up of various Indian media companies claiming to be fighting for a "level playing field" for domestic players vis-?-vis foreign companies.

The ante was upped today as the message was conveyed in no uncertain terms to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who is reported to have told the 15-strong IMG delegation that the law of the land would be kept in mind, in a meeting held at his residence.

The other ministers met by the delegation included deputy prime minister LK Advani, finance minister Jaswant Singh, law and commerce minister Arun Jaitley and information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. 

"Nobody should be allowed to make a monkey of rules," N Ram, editor of The Hindu group of publications told journalists, after the meeting with Vajpayee where among other media issues Star News' case was also discussed.

While Times of India group MD Vineet Jain and Sri Adhikari Brothers Vice-Chairman and MD Markand Adhikari named Star and Rupert Murdoch as "flouting" rules after a meeting with Prasad, India Today Group's promoter Aroon Purie told indiantelevision.com, "We want parity in rules for the print and electronic media. Let the norms, including 51 per cent shareholding with a single Indian entity (as in the print medium FDI guidelines), for both the media be the same." 

The company in the eye of storm, the Rupert Murdoch-controlled Star, however, was cautious in reacting to today's high-pitched developments in the Capital. "We are not aware of what transpired at the meeting with the PM. But we would always abide by the rules set by the government," a senior executive of Star India said.

PM COMFORTING, NO ASSURANCES

Prominent members of the IMG demanded a "uniform approach" and a "level-playing field" for all media organisations competing in the field of information and broadcasting. Though the prime minister is not prone to blurt out his mind at such meetings, according to government sources, all that he told the visiting media team was that "Kanoon ka dhyaan rakhenge (the law will be kept in mind)." Vajpayee was told that the government's rules pertaining to the media should be enforced uniformly and in "letter and spirit."

According to The Hindu's Ram, "We have called for uniformity of all news media and the rules must be implemented in letter and spirit." He also added that in other countries Murdoch was compelled to comply (with the local rules and regulations).

After the meeting at 7, Race Course Road, Vajpayee's residence, TOI's Jain told reporters: "We are seeking a media policy without discrimination for all media." Sahara Group's MD Subrato Roy said, "The PM gave us a patient hearing. We told him that we are not worried about any particular channel or organisation, but we don't want discrimination."

The group, comprising 15-odd persons, which met up with the PM included, amongst others, Zee Telefilms vice-chairman Jawahar Goel, India Today's editor Prabhu Chawla, NDTV's Prannoy Roy, Enadu's I Venkat and representatives from powerful regional media groups like Dainik Bhaskar, Sun TV and Dainik Jagran.

Yet again, absent from this group, was Hindustan Times group, Ananda Bazar Patrika that runs The Telegraph and Business World, The Pioneer, The Indian Express and Business Standard. Except HT, the other absentees had been in the forefront for lobbying with the government for liberalising the FDI guidelines relating to the print medium that barred any foreign investment--- a rule that was reviewed last year and up to 26 per cent foreign investment has been allowed.

I&B MINISTER REFUSES TO TAKE A STAND

Though India Today's Purie is reported to have conveyed to I&B minister Prasad that Star is treating India "as a soft state" (the example of Radio City was given), the minister left it to another IMG (inter-ministerial group) to finish taking a stand on the uplinking issue, aka Star News case and continued temporary extension, before he could voice his opinion. Pointing out that it would not be fair on his part to comment now, he told journalists after the meeting with the media team, "I had no problems with other issues raised by them, but on the uplinking issue, I told them that the matter is currently under investigation and we are trying to ensure a transparent and honest investigation without any bias."

According to sources in the team that met Prasad, NDTV's Roy is reported to have told the minister, referring to Star, that "they are pushing you" and Purie is understood to have quipped that a scam is brewing where the backdoor entry of Star into various segments of media is concerned. The minister, caught between moral and professional obligations, is understood to have told the visiting personalities that the government cannot be rushed into taking decisions. "It (the examination of Star News case) may take some time. two weeks may be. You cannot rush it," the minister told journalists, adding that "no view" has been taken by him at the moment on the financing and funding of Media Content Communications Services India Private Limited (MCCS), the company that has applied for uplinking news content from India for Star News channel.

The media team, according to Prasad, also dwelt on other issues like conditional access system ("they support the government on this": RSP) , a level playing field for domestic players and duty exemption on a whole range of machines for tech upgradation. However, according to a person who attended the meeting the media barons had with Prasad, Star was foremost on the minds of everybody and other issues were just mentioned in the passing. India Today Editor Chawla, at one point, asked directly as to why the government was giving temporary extensions to Star News for uplinking if the government had so many doubts! Everybody laughed at this and no reply came, of course.

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