No entry for states, political parties, religious bodies into broadcasting: Trai

NEW DELHI: The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India today ruled out the entry of political parties into broadcasting, and also said religious bodies may not be permitted to own their own broadcasting stations and teleports.

Similarly, state governments, urban and rural local bodies etc should not be allowed entry into broadcasting, noting that their interests can be adequately met by Prasar Bharati by imposing certain public service broadcasting obligations on private broadcasters. Trai has also recommended that the state governments and their organs should stay away from distribution activities.

Trai also said certain public service broadcasting obligations be imposed on broadcasters in the country. The preparation of content for public service broadcasting may be done by individuals including private broadcasters, NGOs, social action groups, in addition to Prasar Bharati, DAVP, state governments and their organs.

The Central Government (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting) may set up a regular body to approve and certify programmes as being fit for broadcast as part of the public service broadcasting obligation.

To begin with, every private broadcaster may be mandated to carry such approved programmes at least for a total duration of 30 minutes in a week.

Trai took this decision after considering the relevant Constitutional provisions, the Constituent Assembly debates, the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission and the judgments of the Supreme Court, and feedback received from the stakeholders.

These recommendations have been made by Trai in its report on “Issues relating to entry of certain entities into Broadcasting and Distribution activities”. It said in order to provide funds for such public service broadcasting programmes, a Fund known as the Public Service Broadcasting Obligation Fund should be established on lines similar to the Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund in the telecom sector, and by imposing an annual Public Service Broadcasting Obligation levy on the private broadcasters in the country and a predetermined share from the percentage of gross revenue being paid by the identified stakeholders in the broadcasting sector.

With reference to political parties, Trai said broadcasting channels provide “reasonable access” to recognized political parties during the run up to elections to Parliament and to the State Legislative Assemblies.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting may seek the guidance of the Election Commission and may frame appropriate guidelines in this regard, having regard to the importance of the free flow of information to the public during the electoral process.

In case permission has earlier been granted to any religious body for a television channel, provisions should be made for "an appropriate exit route within a time limit of three to four years to such religious bodies."

Denial of entry to religious bodies would be in conformity with the secular fabric of the Constitution. Trai has recommended that the disqualifications as contained in the relevant provisions of the Broadcasting Bill 1997 (which could not be enacted into law) regarding disqualification of religious bodies may be incorporated in the proposed new legislation on broadcasting.

However, such disqualification should not be construed to mean that religious contents in the broadcasting channels is to be disallowed. Such religious content should be in conformity with the appropriate content code or programme code as prescribed from time to time by the government.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had requested Trai, by its reference dated 27 December, 2007, to examine the matter of allowing certain entities including State Governments, urban and local bodies, 3-tier Panchayati Raj bodies, publicly funded bodies, political bodies and religious bodies to enter into broadcasting activities which may include starting of broadcast channels or entering into distribution platforms such as cable services and DTH.

Trai released a Consultation Paper on 25 February 2008 on the issues arising out of the reference. The Consultation Paper covered issues as to whether it would be in the interest of the broadcasting sector and in the interest of the public at large to permit the Union government and its organs, the state governments and their organs, urban and rural local bodies, political bodies, religious bodies etc. to enter into broadcasting and distribution activities like cable TV and DTH. The consultation paper also raised the issue whether permitting the state governments and their enterprises to enter into broadcasting sector would have impact on the Centre-State Relationship and the inter-se relationship among the states.

This was followed by an Open House Discussion (OHD) held in New Delhi on 16 April 2008. The Authority has, after carefully examining several Constitutional and legal issues arising out of the reference and after carefully considering the views of stake-holders and the prevailing international practices, arrived at these final recommendations.

As far as entry of state governments into distribution platforms such as cable TV, DTH, etc. is concerned, the Authority says the country already has six DTH operators, about 6000 multi-system operators, and nearly 60,000 cable operators. In the interest of fair competition and a level playing field, and considering the need to ensure proper enforcement mechanism equally applicable to all the players in the field, suitable provisions for exit route within three to four years have been provided wherever state governments and their organs have entered such distribution activity.

For similar reasons and the need to prevent misuse of distribution platforms by any of the players on political or other considerations and also the need to prevent any problems relating to enforcement measures against the service providers involved, Trai has recommended that urban and local bodies, political bodies, religious bodies and other publicly funded bodies may not be permitted into distribution activities like cable television and DTH.

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