Prasad defends govt. handling of Star News case in RS

NEW DELHI: Information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad today juggled criticism and defence admirably. Especially when it came to the Opposition criticism of the government allowing Star News to continue uplinking despite doubts being raised over the company's funding process.

Prasad admitted that "a prime concern" of the government has been to ensure that ownership and editorial control of television channels telecasting news and current affairs is in Indian hands without any proxy.

However in the same breath, he also said that the government cannot suddenly "switch off" an existing channel (read Star News) even while investigations are on about its antecedents.

(Till the time of writing this piece late in the evening there was no confrimation from the government whether Star News had been given another uplinking extension as the deadline expires midnight).

Pointing out that when Star News filed an application it was simple one, the minister said now a lot of queries --- mostly by the I&B ministry --- have been raised and details obtained after asking 46 questions. "Since it's under consideration, it would not be fair for me to comment now," the minister said amidst a chorus of protest from Opposition members.

The minister was replying to calling attention motion in Rajya Sabha (Upper House) on CAS and uplinking.

An inter-ministerial group has been formed that is looking into various issues of Star News case, the minister said, asking, "Should I stop them (Star News) midway? After all I have to be fair." Dwelling on the genesis of the guidelines for foreign investment in TV news channels, the minister said that the case of print and electronic medium cannot be termed the same.

When the foreign direct investment guidelines for print was reviewed, no foreign investment was allowed --- it was a "closed" regime --- but in the electronic medium, many things has been allowed (it's an "open" regime), the minister said , adding the comparison of two should not be done at this point. Still, striking a conciliatory note Prasad said, "If some more tightening (of laws for the electronic medium) is needed, we are open to it."

The government came for severe flak from its ally Shiv Sena and main opposition Congress for its uplinking policy that demanded any foreign channel violating norms should not be given uplinking facility.

Congress member Kapil Sibal told the Rajya Sabha that "uplinking policy should be non-discriminatory and any party, which violates norms, should not be given uplinking facility."

Shiv Sena member Sanjay Nirupam said the FDI policy for foreign channels should be on the lines of one pursued for print media that makes it mandatory for 51 per cent equity for Indian partners, besides the editorial control.

Others who also spoke on the issue included Samajwadi Party member Amar Singh and Congress' Falerio.

According to Prasad the guidelines, issued on 26 March laid down the following eligibility criteria for a company uplinking news and current affairs channels, including the following: to be registered/incorporated in India under the Companies Act and management control of TV channels are vested in Indian hands; foreign equity holding in the applicant company not to exceed 26 per cent of the total paid up capital; majority of its board of directors to be resident Indians; CEO of the applicant company, known by any designation, and or head of the channel to be resident Indian; and News Editor(s) or authority(ies) exercising editorial control over news and current affairs programmes of the channels to be resident Indians.

Further, by an order of 15 July , an inter-ministerial group has been set up to examine the foreign exchange norms and guidelines, particularly, relating to uplinking of news and current affairs channels. The case of one of the application (Star News), seeking uplinking, as per extant guidelines is under examination, the minister informed the House.

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