RadioandMusic
| 19 May 2022
Information and Broadcasting: an uphill journey all the way

NEW DELHI: For any person who takes over the mantle of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, the handling of the portfolio will be full of potholes created by his or her predecessors primarily because of a failure to take strong decisions.

By some mischance or deliberate choice, the Ministry 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, 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 realize 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 Ministry – 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 take persons who have some interest in the information and broadcasting sectors, 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 I and B. Consequently, the choice falls upon someone like Smriti Irani, unless the Bharatiya Janata Party picks on someone from its allies.

I AND B MINISTRY

It would help the government if the decisions being taken by the Ministry 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 everyday. on phone if not in person.

PRASAR BHARATI

But 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 Ministry.

Even as Mr B S Lalli was removed from the post of CEO of Prasar Bharati under a cloud of corruption and mismanagement, his successor Jawhar Srcar 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).

DOORDARSHAN

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 service of 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.

AIR

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 listen in to radio just as they love to 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. Perhaps the only way out would be to ensure that even FM radios are made available on the DRM sets.

FM BROADCASTING

The initiative to allow transmission of AIR news on 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 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.

COMMUNITY RADIO

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.

(The above information only caters to the Radio Industry).