'We propose to set up viewers' forums and empower these with a legal backing' : P R Das Munshi - I&B minister

At a time when the Indian media industry is again buzzing with activities, information and broadcasting minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, who took over from Jaipal Reddy in October 2005, speaks to BBC Radio's Hindi service on a host of issues related to his ministry, but primarily focussing on financial autonomy of pubcaster Prasar Bharati, news content on FM radio and whether the government should actively regulate crime shows on private satellite channels.

Excerpts from BBC's interaction with Das Munshi:

BBC Q : Mr Das Munshi, in the world's largest democracy, is the media truly independent and in your view does it function with responsibility?

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi : I want to say with full responsibility that media in India has set a high standard not only within the country or in South Asia, but in the whole. By taking news to the people independently and in an unbiased manner, the media has made an important place for itself in our democracy, and this successful democracy would not be able to function without this important arm now !

BBC Q : Doordarshan and All India Radio are still the most important mediums of mass communication in our country, but private TV channels appear to be more competitive. Is there any thinking to convert Doordarshan a competitive channel ?

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi : See there is a discussion going on this issue, whether Doordarshan can compete with private channels or not in both content as well as presentation. For this let us take a look back for a few decades. When Prasar Bharati Corporation was formed, its aim was to reach out to every nook and corner of the country, inform people first. Let them know about what the government was doing and also not doing on people's issues, and then start a debate on such issues. At that time the aim was not to develop a commercial viability to be able to compete with private channels, but to function as true public service broadcaster !

BBC Q : But DD can become competitive only if it is granted autonomy in real terms and that would not be possible if it does not have complete financial autonomy. Why is the government not allowing that to happen ?

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi : See, I fully support complete financial autonomy for the Prasar Bharti. When this corporation was formed, it was decided at that time only to make it financially autonomous. The responsibility of doing that was of Prasar Bharti, but today I do not want to hold its senior officials for this, whatever may have been the reasons, let us look forward now. Prasar Bharti would have to develop its commercial viability now, so that it has its own resources.

Presently it is dependant on the government for two-thirds of its financial requirements, if this continues then the autonomy would be only in name and its dependence on the government would continue !

BBC Q : But government dependence clearly means open interference in Doordarshan and AIR at all levels ?

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi : I would never talk of interference, but look at the facts, if the government is providing money to any public sector unit, then it would have to find out what is being done with the money provided, and remember questions are asked in parliament from the ministry, we have to answer them. Given all this and to bring about a real change, I have proposed to set up a Group of Ministers (GoM) which would take a fresh look at the Prasar Bharti Act.

For example section 22 of this Act had asked for tax exemption on the earnings, it was struck down, I don't know why ? Now to put things in perspective and look at revenue generation for Prasar Bharti, we would seek fresh ideas.

However, being a minister I want to say clearly that the Doordarshan has not been able to attain a professional standard which should have been there by now. It has got caught in a systematic bureaucratic machinery and positive development has been hampered. Once sees same faces on DD atleast twenty times a day, this monopoly is going to stop !

BBC Q : But has any study been done so far to identify the weaknesses and get over them ?

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi :Yes, I have myself studied the various departments of Doordarshan to understand where the root of the problem lies. I have been pained to find how Doordarshan has suffered in programming and content. In my view the flaw is that no proper technical recruitment has been done since 1990. A single individual is expected to handle four types of work. Similarly in case of Station Directors it is not clear whether they are for programming or for technical guidance. The purchase and maintenance of equipments has been ignored for far too long. I am not claiming that I would change things overnight, but I can assure you that by 31st May this year, countrymen would be able to say Doordarshan is no less than any private channel !

'It is our duty to see that the news being broadcast on radio is correct and does not provoke any section of the society. Our challenge is greater than any other country'

BBC Q : There is a revolution in the radio market with the government having cleared more than 300 private FM channels, but why news and current affairs has not been allowed on this ?

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi : Let us first wait and see what content would be offered by these stations for the next two to three years and then we would think about the next step. We are presently not allowing news and current affairs programmes on private FM radio stations, as it is better to delay it so that no wrong goes on air, rather than trying to control the damage afterwards, which won't be easy.

BBC Q : But virtually everything has been allowed on TV, why is radio being given such a treatment ?

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi : Let us look at the issue carefully.

Television reaches the educated class of the country and extends to those who are not literate in rural areas by way of community TV. The rural people are more interested in entertainment programmes on TV, and the interest towards news programmes is less. However, the fact with radio is that the news broadcast on it is considered the last word and has unmatched credibility. Therefore it is our duty to see that the news being broadcast on radio is correct and does not provoke any section of the society. Our challenge is greater than any other country.

When all major countries in the world have allowed news and current affairs on private FM stations, why is India hesitant to do so ?

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi : We cannot compare ourselves with any other country in the world, as first of all we have to keep our country united. Nowhere in the world so many language and dialect channels are there. USA, UK, France none of them have so many languages and channels in them. Though there is no official ban on news and current affairs on private FM stations in the countries mentioned above, but an undeclared ban on the content is there. We in India have gone ahead of them by allowing so many private FM stations.

BBC Q : When people already have access and listen to so many international radio stations, then how would it be logical to hold back news and current affairs from private FM stations in the country ?

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi : Yes people listen to multiple radio broadcasts, but it is the All India Radio that they depend on for authentic information. Look at the recent example of Gujarat riots, it was only after the AIR said peace was returning to the state, people were really relieved. So, it is an issue of content. It is not possible to liberalise news & current affairs immediately after having allowed private FM stations. We are going to observe two-three years as those of experimentation and see what content is being offered, and then we would decide about news on FM. Think of a situation, if for example a company from a particular country succeeds in bagging say 290 of the 300 stations up for grabs. It is not an international issue for us, but in such a particular situation, won't that company be giving natural preference to its own country rather than us.

BBC Q : How would the content on private FM stations be monitored ?

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi : Government would evolve a content monitoring mechanism for private FM stations, and this would not be done by the government, but instead would be handed over to the players themselves, and government would step in if only there were a violation of the mechanism, therefore we would like to proceed slowly.

BBC Q : Is the government thinking to regulate the rapid increase in crime related shows on private TV channels in the country, especially in evenings when children watch TV ?

Priya Priya Ranjan Das Munshi : See the UPA government does not believe in regulation and control, especially when it comes to media. We are committed to give compete freedom to the media. It would be very difficult for the government to monitor what crime shows private TV channels are showing. What we can do is to suggest them to telecast such shows after 10 pm in the night. We have regulated what the satellites were beaming from outside the country by implementing the Code of Content and Advertisement so far as the cable TV is concerned. But when would they show a particular programme and what visuals they are showing, we do not interfere in it.

BBC Q : But why is the government was reluctant to follow the example of Britain, where a media self-regulator Ofcom acts as an effective independent watch-dog ?

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi : Let me tell you, in the coming session of Parliament, we are going to propose for the first time in our country, setting up of viewers forums on the lines of consumer forums. We propose to set-up a national niewers' forum and regional viewers forums, and we intend to empower these forums with a legal backing.

The government would act on the advice and suggestions of these forums. Private TV channels would be made responsible to these forums.

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