"DD and AIR are not selling their product" : Ravi Shankar Prasad Information & broadcasting minister

India's new information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad is of the opinion that in the national interest, cable operators should desist from re-distributing Pak TV. He stated this in a programme on the BBC World Service.

Participating in a BBC Hindi Radio phone-in-programme Aap ki Baat BBC ke Saath on BBC World Service on Sunday, where the minister took questions from the BBC as well as listeners the world over, Prasad also said that efforts are being made to spruce up Doordarshan and All India Radio but everything cannot be dictated by commercial time.

"We would have to bear in mind that DD and AIR have a public character also, which we cannot forget. Everything cannot be controlled by commercial revenue," Prasad said.

Here's a run-down of the interview where Prasad talks on various issues related to the media. Extracts from the programme, which has been provided by BBC World Service's Delhi office.

The abbreviations used: BBC Q - questions asked by the BBC presenter Nagendar Sharma; RSP - Ravi Shankar Prasad.

BBC Q - What is the Indian government doing to make the Indian media compete at the international level?

- Indian media has a big role to play. Our country has a lot of creativity, and we have quality people in the media. I should be able to make constructive use of this creativity, so that there is entertainment, good quality programmes and I would strive to create a liking for development of the country in the people. I am also going to promote Indian films in a big way, because these films reflect our society in a big way. There is great demand for Indian films in China, South East Asia and even Latin America. I will extend all support to the Indian film industry.

BBC listener from Bharuch (Gujarat): Sir, I have high hopes from you. During the Gujarat riots last year, some regional dailies like 'Sandesh' and 'Gujarat Samachar', had a provocative role, for which they were severely criticised by the Editors Guild, Press Council and a large number of NGOs, and were also held guilty of communalising the charged atmosphere, can we expect any justice from your ministry?

RSP - Thanks for having some expectation from me. See, the Press Council has full rights to take action against any inflammatory writings. But if the public wants to act itself, it can do so - there is a legal provision for that too - you can write to a retired judge of the Supreme Court, appointed in this regard.

BBC listener from Raipur (Chattisgarh): You are answering our questions, from another medium. When would that day come, when you would be answering the common man from public service broadcasters - Doordarshan and Akashwani - frankly as today and without any difficulty?

RSP - You have asked a very good question. Let me tell you that Doordarshan covers 89 per cent of the area in India. All India Radio (AIR)- Akashwani has 24 crore (240 million) listeners. Both these broadcasting agencies have an unparalleled reach. After taking over as Information & Broadcasting Minister, I have decided that the priority for Doordarshan and AIR would be creativity, professionalism and competition. I am fully aware of the talent and quality in DD and AIR. What they need is cooperation, which I would extend without hesitation to make them the mediums for entertainment and development!

"In the print media, you do not see writings, which create Hindu-Muslim divide. Is it right to show it live on television?"
BBC Q - You have just given the figures of the reach of these public broadcasters. These should be the agenda setters for the news in the country, when would that time come? What do you feel?

RSP - Yes, these being the setters of news agenda are one aspect. At the moment India is passing through an age of transition. If I keep this debate at a higher level, then Nagendar you would agree with me that - then the Plan document of our government has envisaged eight per cent growth - I am talking about the new Plan document - Document 2020 - Through which we wish to see our country as a developed nation by that time. This is an enormous task. For which the first and foremost thing is internal improvement. For this what is required is that people of the country are informed of the changes taking place and they need to be convincingly informed that these changes are for their betterment. What is happening at the moment is quite unfortunate - some are fed with all sorts of information and some are starved of information. I would strive that through these public broadcasters - people get correct information in a creative and entertaining way - so that there is an urge for development in the country.

BBC Q - You are setting a big goal. But right now the situation is that public personalities, whether politicians, actors and even players are seen every evening on private TV channels debating hot issues, when would the public broadcasters see that day?

RSP - Well, I would like to mention two points here. It is not so as has been told to you. Look at news first: The reach of DD news is 86 per cent at prime time. About AIR I have told you earlier. The weakness that I have noticed about both of these agencies is that they are not selling their product. People are not aware of their assets. And some of the channels claiming to be the top channels, what is their reach? I am now aware of even that! I have told the officials of DD and AIR that they have to market themselves professionally, so that personalities can make a mark in your programmes and feel excited to come in these programmes.

BBC Q: Are you saying that from now on there would be free criticism and latest developments on DD and AIR?

RSP - See Nagendar! Criticism has been taking place on the public service broadcaster, but the problem is that some voices are only there for criticism, and I am not convinced with such voices. If you are a public broadcaster - like say the BBC, we are aware of the traditions of the BBC. Public broadcasters have a different image, and a greater responsibility. So, there would have to be a balance between the image and the responsibility. I have full faith in the staff of DD and AIR that they would take care of this balance.
"Wherever I have gone after taking over as I&B Minister, I am finding that the demand of FM radio is rapidly increasing"

BBC listener from Sambalpur (Orissa): I want to bring to your notice that the 25-30 years of experience of announcers in AIR is not being given any importance. All doors leading to administrative posts have been shut on announcers. Announcers have worked a lot on programmes, now they have been separated from the programme wing. You would be surprised to know that the senior announcers are not there in the Casual Announcer Selection Board. Why are announcers being cut-off from the AIR mainstream?

RSP - Thanks for bringing this problem to my notice. I know that this is an old problem of the announcers. I would look into the matter, what I have to say right now is that the voice of the announcers is the most valuable treasure of Akashwani. After taking over as the I&B minister, I had said in an interview to the DD that in the era of TV today, Akashwani has become like our neglected child, whereas its reach is 24 crore (240 million). I would try to solve the problems of the announcers.

"I am not in favour of any moral policing, but some kind of self-control is very important"

BBC Q: You have taken over as I&B minister just a week back, but you are painting a positive picture. For the public broadcasters to fulfil their social and entertaining role. Is there sufficient money available with the government?

RSP - See there are two things. I do feel the importance of the social responsibility. But this is not only of the public broadcasters; this applies to all the channels as well. I would like to give you an example here - live coverage of the terrorist attacks is done. You have the right to do so, but some dangers are involved in it. In Akshardham, if when the commandoes are entering the temple complex, in the live coverage it is being shown and announced that now the commandoes have come - now the commandoes have come! Here when the full world is seeing them - and the bosses of these terrorists in Pakistan get a chance to warn them on the mobiles that since the commandoes have come now, you be alert. So the channels need to be aware of their responsibility. So far as the content creation is concerned, Nagendar, I agree with you. There is need of a greater cooperation in DD and AIR - whatever is required -institutional as well as infrastructural - I will take care of that.

BBC Q: You have reminded the media of its responsibility. I would like to take you back to the Supreme Court decision of 1995, in which the court ruled for freeing airwaves from government control. What happened after that -again it was caught in the bureaucratic shackles?

RSP - It is correct to have free airwaves in principle. But much water has flowed down the Ganges from 1995 till now. At that time there was only DD, now you have so many channels. Then you have so many FM stations, the world is moving towards an open sky. Only what is required is that we have to strike a balance.

BBC Q: You have spoken about the open sky. Yes there are so many cable TV channels now, but the government monopoly over the terrestrial channels continues.

RSP - The reach of our terrestrial channels is tremendous. Prime importance right now has to be given to the technical improvements in our terrestrial networks for a better reception.We are giving an impetus for that - in the Tenth plan, we have laid special focus on that. See, right now I am speaking to you in London from Shimla, here in my press conference I have announced that we are going to digitalise the DD and AIR Shimla stations soon. In this highly competitive time, all our channels would have to turn competitive - by improving quality and technical content. But in all this we would have to bear in mind that DD and AIR have a public character also, which we cannot forget, everything cannot be controlled by a commercial revenue.

"I have told the officials of DD and AIR that they have to market themselves professionally, so that personalities can make a mark in your programmes and feel excited to come in these programmes"

BBC listener from Chandigarh: In the modern day world, every event or tragedy can be seen sitting at home on the private channels and international networks. But even today the government controlled media gives selective news that too after it has been censored and made suitable to the govt. Isn't this compromising on the credibility of AIR and DD? My second question is - are there any plans to open a new radio station in Uttaranchal?

RSP - Let me answer your second question first - we are planning to open a new FM station in Uttaranchal. Now for the first question, yes - latest news should be made available to the viewer/listener. But how this news reaches you is also equally important. For example, if a riot takes place - see it is news also and a slur on the society at the same time. Think - is its live coverage necessary? In the print media, you do not see writings, which create Hindu-Muslim divide. Is it right to show it live, I ask this question to you - the citizens of India? So the latest news should reach everybody, but that news should not spread hatred. That is why I am talking of self- control.

I have requested all the channels that in riots, terror attacks, please be cautious and exercise self-restraint. Having said that, I believe that public has a right to information, which they must get.

BBC Q: What could be the reason for the general feeling that news is censored in govt controlled media?

RSP - Let me make it clear that there is nothing as censor. This feeling is not right at all. What is required in DD and AIR is a greater sense of professionalism. These organisations have the best talent. After all, people from here only have gone to private channels. Therefore, I am not in favour of any sort of censor, but I am in favour of social responsibility.

BBC listener from Peshawar (Pakistan): The minister has given impressive figures about DD and AIR. But in South Asia, the truth is that media has been under government checks. In India, some time back the govt of India allowed Foreign Direct Investment in print media, which the editors of leading papers did not like and they termed it as a ploy to bring them under pressure? Was it right?

RSP - So far as you are talking about government control, there is a lot of difference between India and Pakistan. We are a democracy; we do not have any control. In Pakistan, a journalist asked a critical question to Gen Musharraf and he was sacked. All this does not happen in India. So far as the Foreign Investment is concerned, there were two views, some were in favour and others opposed. We decided that we would allow up to 26 per cent foreign investment, those willing would have to come on our conditions. Therefore there is no control in India, if ever you were to come to India, you would get to know about the degree of freedom here.

BBC listener from Belgam: Right now the FM stations, just broadcast the programmes of Vividh Bharthi, which are only for entertainment. If the listeners get to listen world class news and current affairs programmes like those of BBC World Service, Voice of America and others, it would be of benefit for all. What steps are being taken in this regard?

RSP - FM radio stations are immensely popular, and if you say that only Vividh Bharthi is broadcast on AIR, I do not agree. FM has brought about a new creativity in India. Wherever I have gone after taking over as I&B Minister, I am finding that the demand of FM is rapidly increasing. Now FMs should broadcast the BBC News &Current Affairs, it would have to be looked into. Right now we have allotted a newsbyte scope for the FMs. In this could there be a BBC scope also, I would have to look into it. Your suggestion is good; give me time to study the matter.

BBC listener from Delhi: After the deterioration in relations between India and Pakistan, the PTV has been indulging in Anti-India propaganda. What steps are you taking to stop this?

RSP - See the telecast of PTV is not legal. But I am getting information, I have been told in Shimla as well that, it is being telecast illegally in some parts. Now since I am seized of the matter, I would see how to stop this. But then remember that we are living in the open-sky era and people can beam it. I appeal to the cable operators to keep the national interest in mind while dealing with this matter, otherwise the law would take its own course.

BBC Q: What is the latest position in this matter ?

RSP - Some people are showing it surreptitiously!

BBC listener from Nasik: Why in the serious matters such as riots, the government controlled media gives only half and partially true information, one has to depend on mediums like BBC for the real picture? Also some time carelessly, the government media makes silly mistakes. Just yesterday the Indian Standard Time (IST)of the Cricket World Cup Opening ceremony was not given. It was only after listening to the BBC that I got the correct time?

RSP - Thanks for bringing the Cricket World Cup timing, I would look into it. Now for your first question. Tell me why is it necessary that every angle concerned with a riot be shown? that live coverage of a riot be shown? I repeat that when print media cover riots, they do not say that these many Muslims and these many Hindus were killed in the riot. Why is it important to show it on TV? Riot is news also and a social slur as well - this balance we need to strike. Let me remind you here that when the World Trade Centre was attacked in New York, nearly five thousand people were killed. The BBC, CNN, Fox News or NBC, none of them showed the piles of dead bodies or the blood soaked faces of the injured. These channels were not subject to any control. All these channels exercised a great self- control. Why? I ask you. Because all of them had a thinking that they would not allow the terrorists to use their platforms to spread further terror and panic in the world. It is this self control, that I am talking about, I am not in favour of any moral policing, but some kind of self-control is very important.

BBC Q: In the course of the programme, you have spoken about the open skies but open for TV and not for radio, is it not a contradictory policy?

RSP - Nagendar! sitting in London you are speaking to the Indian I&B Minister in Shimla. Where is the restriction on radio? You can ask me any question and I would reply. So far as the professional openness for BBC and other foreign broadcasters is concerned, that is a separate issue and is not concerned with the open sky. How much we have to allow the foreign broadcasters on Indian Radio that requires a detailed discussion

BBC Q: We are now approaching towards the end of the programme. You have answered a range of questions today. Honestly, how much would you succeed in making the Indian media of international standards?

RSP - Nagendar! I am not a minister who talks a lot, I instead concentrate on work temperamentally, I am low profile. I worked in the Coal & Mines Ministry , and was able to speed up the developmental work. So did I in the Law Ministry. I would request you that speak to me when I would have spent some time in this Ministry. I have decided my priorities, and would work on them. I need your good wishes to make Information & Broadcasting Ministry, as the one, which is for the people - Thank You.

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