NEW DELHI: For any person who takes over the mantle of the information & broadcasting ministry (MIB), the handling of the portfolio will be full of potholes created by his or her predecessors, primarily because of the failure to take strong decisions.
By some mischance or deliberate choice, the MIB has remained without a working head since Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi was forced to leave because of sickness. While Ambika Soni did her best to put into operation plans worked out by the ministry’s bureaucrats or the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), both she and her successor Manish Tewari remained primarily spokespersons of the ruling party.
Perhaps this was not entirely their fault, but that of the party which failed to realise that the ‘Information’ portfolio does not imply giving party inputs or the media which insisted on only raising party issues whenever these two met the members of the fourth estate.
There is also no gainsaying that the lower priority given to the MIB – from a full-fledged minister with assisting ministers of state to a single minister of state with independent charge – also contributed to this.
With the new government in place, the speculation about who the new minister will be and what expectations can be had will be of considerable interest.
If the government decides to hand over the portfolio to someone who takes interest in the information and broadcasting sector, then the choice zeroes down to a handful of names. But it is clear that politicians of the standing of Sushma Swaraj or Arun Jaitley who have held this portfolio earlier will not go back to it, and Shatrughan Sinha who has earlier served in the government as minister in-charge of two ministries will agree only if made a full-fledged minister and the chances are that he will want a more important portfolio than the MIB.
Consequently, the choice falls upon someone like Smriti Irani, unless the Bharatiya Janata Party picks on someone from its allies.
It would help the government if the decisions being taken by the MIB are transparent, and the concerned officials are easily accessible to the media which represents the aspirations of the people.
While it is true that senior ministry officials are generally reluctant to speak during a session of Parliament, there is no reason for their not doing so at other times.
Perhaps the secretary of the ministry should designate certain officers to be available to the media at certain hours every day, on phone, if not in person.
Notwithstanding who will hold the portfolio, it is clear that it will be no less than being at the edge of the twin-edged sword. Interestingly, one of these two edges was conceived by the erstwhile Jana Sangh (now BJP) which was then part of Janata Party and L K Advani at the head of this MIB.
Even as B S Lalli was removed from the post of CEO of Prasar Bharati under a cloud of corruption and mismanagement, his successor Jawhar Sircar has taken up cudgels against the ministry on the ground that the public service broadcaster is an autonomous body.
On the other hand, the government feels that since it pays the salaries, has waived spectrum fee and given other concessions, and has initiated the laying down of rules and regulations regarding employees, it cannot be wished away and has to have a say in the working of the pubcaster.
The new incumbent in the ministry will therefore have to work out certain ground rules within the ambit of the Prasar Bharati Act 1990 drawing clear lines about its role. Clearly, autonomy does not mean freedom to do anything, but at the same time lays certain constitutional norms or reasonable restrictions.
In the light of Article 19(1)(a) about freedom of speech and expression, it becomes abundantly clear that the government should not have any control over the content broadcast by All India Radio or telecast by Doordarshan unless this violates the Reasonable Restrictions laid in the Constitution or the Codes under the Prasar Bharati Act or the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995. But it may be difficult to stop the government being the financing agency from interfering in the management of the pubcaster.
In view of this, it is also clear that the spending of the budget laid aside by the ministry for content creation should be left to DD and AIR without day-to-day monitoring by the ministry.
Furthermore, there has to be greater transparency and quicker decision-making both by the government and by AIR and more particularly Doordarshan about the programmes it wants to commission or broadcast. It is understood that some proposals from independent producers have been pending in DD for almost a decade.
The Sam Pitroda Committee on Prasar Bharati is generally repetitive of the provisions of the Prasar Bharati Act, but may help to speed up some processes. The new Minister will therefore have to immediately hold wide-ranging consultations with all stakeholders and take action on the report.
There is little doubt that DD and AIR are today broadcasting programmes that no private operator dares to do because of the loss of eyeballs (TRPs).
While Doordarshan has made appreciable progress in terms of popularity in semi-urban or urban areas even as it holds the top spot in rural India, there is urgent need to take steps to market the channel even better. While its programmes have become entertaining even as they serve the public by sending out direct or indirect messages, the general perception is to the contrary.
DD also needs to bring certain channels that are only known in certain regions to the national level. These include DD Bharati, DD Urdu, DD Kashir, and the DD channels in the north east. Greater facility for dubbing popular serials in Hindi would help in this effort.
The audio wing of Prasar Bharati has been treated in a somewhat step-motherly fashion since DD began to grow. There is urgent need to reverse that by getting more people to tune in to radio just the way they tune in to DD.
This can clearly be done by bringing All India Radio’s National channel and the popular Vividh Bharati channel onto the FM networks so that it is heard in the same way as private FM channels or FM Gold and FM Rainbow.
AIR has already spent crores of rupees on creating the basic infrastructure for Digital Radio Mondiale, which can make medium-wave or short wave programmes accessible to listeners. The only lacunae appear to be the absence of reasonably priced receivers, and the reluctance of the present Prasar Bharati CEO to the growth of this medium.
While manufacturers have come forward to produce reasonably priced receivers for use on mobiles, cars or at home, the Government is pushing ahead its programme for the third phase of FM Radio expansion and this is the right time to pursue as DRM sets are also FM compatible.
TELECOM REGULATORY AUTHORITY OF INDIA
Of late, far too many cases have been going to the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) with relation to broadcasting but the problem has been complicated further by the judgment of the Supreme Court that TRAI regulations should not be adjudicated upon by TDSAT.
Clearly, there is need for TRAI to pay greater heed to its regulations relating to the broadcasting and cable sectors. But since its primary objective has always been telecom, the government will have to consider whether there is need for a separate Broadcast Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI), something which has been tossed around for the past 15 years.
Allegations are that broadcasters tend to get the TRAI's hearing more. But in recent times it has been reaching out to more and more cable TV operators when they come up with a logical discussion and argument flow. Perhaps a new BRAI – also provided for in the proposed Broadcast Services Bill – with clearer objectives may help overcome not only the prejudices that are alleged against TRAI.
The new body could also look at the high taxation down the line – from that levied on manufacturers, broadcasters, cable and other service operators like DTH and HITS, and the consumers (viewers).
The Broadcast Audience Research Council aimed at replacing the outdated present TAM system needs to be expedited. This may also help the broadcasting industry overcome the hurdles created by the 12-minute ad cap since it will bring in greater transparency.
Self-regulation is healthy as the TV channels will accept decisions of their own ilk more easily than those dictated by the government. It seems to be working well, and it's best left like that. Content regulation is any way the MIB's domain, and it can step in and bang its fist on the table if things get out of hand.
One option being mentioned is that the Inter-Ministerial Committee of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry be vested with greater powers and also made more broad-based with representatives of more ministries, while permitting some civil society intellectuals apart from representatives of News Broadcasting Services Authority (NBSA), the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) or the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) as ex-officio members.
Furthermore, all the decisions taken by the NBSA, BCCC or ASCI should be finally whetted by the IMC before being made public. The primary purpose of this move would be to ensure that even channels that are not members of these bodies can be covered if the directive comes from the Ministry’s IMC.
DIGITAL ACCESS SYSTEM
There is little doubt that the experience of the first two phases of DAS has shown that around 30-40 per cent of the cities covered are still broadcasting on analogue mode. Clearly, there has to be re-think not only on whether the next two phases should be combined (as planned by the outgoing government) or relaxed into more phases with a greater time span, and on whether the regulations drawn up by TRAI in this regard need to be looked at again, since both the consumers and the cable operators appear unhappy.
Presently, the DAVP gives advertisements to help small and medium newspapers or to propagandize the programmes of the government. It has also introduced short films for television channels or cinema houses, but the rates it pays to the media have remained almost static, since the increases are more symbolic than actual whenever a new advertising policy is announced. It may be worthwhile for the government to consult all stakeholders including the Press Council, ASCI, Indian Broadcasting Foundation, News Broadcasters Association, the Film Federation of India and other film bodies before bringing out the next advertising policy. The recent move by the Supreme Court of setting up a three-member panel to discuss what constitutes advertising and propaganda will be helpful.
The initiative to allow transmission of AIR news on private FM radio on a as-is-where-is basis is a welcome move, but guidelines can be drawn up to permit discussions on entertainment or sports etc. by the channels themselves.
Even as the process of the third phase has begun, it should be ensured that while on the one hand it is expedited, and on the other it does not clash with the DRM programme since that would force viewers to buy two different receiver sets.
Undoubtedly, the third phase will help cover almost the entire country, but it has to be ensured that once the auctions are over, the procedures for clearing the channels should not only be speedy, but the annual fee should be affordable.
While the pace of the growth of community radio has not been good, the new programmes to provide finance to prospective entrepreneurs may help. The introduction of awards for Community Radio has been a welcome step.
Similarly, All India Radio programmes can be made available either free of cost or on a barter basis to channels that make good programmes.
Although the film industry was given the status of an industry, little else was done to follow this up with positive action. And although it is one of the highest taxed industries in the country, the government has paid little heed to help filmmakers come up with original work. For this reason, the studio system that ruled the industry till the late fifties appears to be coming back with large corporate producers funding and producing films and independent filmmakers still facing an uphill task to find funds.
The National Film Development Corporation though led by a dynamic leader Nina Lath Gupta has been constrained by a crunch in funds from the MIB. Gupta totally restructure and reinvented NFDC a few years ago until some distrust from the MIB saw funds drying up last year. It needs to have more money at its disposal, and it should be allowed to live up to its mandate of encouraging independent film makers and build a pipeline of more films every year.
To overcome Manish Tewari’s view that the Films Division (FD) has outlived its existence, it would be a good idea to convert the FD into both a production body for its own producers and a funding body for independent documentary, animation and short films. The government has to implement the decision of the Apex Court given almost two decades earlier that film magazines of the FD have to be compulsorily exhibited in cinema houses.
But perhaps the most important problem is the high taxation by the government which still treats cinema as a service industry under the Shops and Establishment Act which treats lotteries on the same footing. Lower taxes – and abolition of entertainment tax – will not only help filmmakers, but also bring in more entrepreneurs to build cinema houses which have depleted to just around 10,000 for a country which has a population that is much larger.
The Film Certification Guidelines under the Cinematograph Act 1952 were last amended in December 1991. If films have become more lax in showing violence or sex-oriented scenes, it is because society all around has changed and so have the members of the Central Board of Film Certification. It is therefore necessary for the new Minister to ensure that the guidelines reflect the level of acceptance of certain norms in society that were a taboo two or three decades earlier.
Phew! Undoubtedly, all this presents a daunting task for the government. But good governance is known by what it does, not by what it claims it will do.