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His Master’s Voice

Prasar Bharati is not even a pale imitation of a truly independent public broadcaster.

It is highly unlikely that the Narendra Modi government, or any other previous government, has genuinely wanted an independent and autonomous public broadcaster. Yet, every time there is even a slight difference of opinion between the so-called “public” broadcaster in India, Prasar Bharati, and the government, the issue of autonomy of the former is raised and discussed. A case in point is the recent stand-off between the Prasar Bharati board and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) over, amongst other matters, professional appointments that the board rejected. By asserting its right to decide on this, the board was merely settling a turf battle. When the ministry apparently held back release of funds for salaries of the employees of Doordarshan (DD) and All India Radio (AIR), the board accused it of taking retaliatory measures. But as expected the matter died down, as it was nothing more than a family quarrel.

The concept of an autonomous public broadcasting corporation was born after the excesses of the Indira Gandhi-led Congress party government during the Emergency of 1975–77 when DD and AIR were used as blatant vehicles of government propaganda. The Janata Party government that came into power in 1977 constituted a committee under the chairmanship of veteran editor and journalist B G Verghese to work out how this could be done. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was considered a model for the kind of system India should adopt. On the Verghese Committee’s recommendations, the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act was formulated and passed in 1990. It took another seven years ­before Prasar Bharati was set up.

Yet, even today, no government has considered it essential to implement crucial elements in the law. For instance, in order to protect Prasar Bharati from interference by the government of the day, the act envisaged a 22-member parliamentary committee to oversee its functioning. This committee does not ­exist and no political party has demanded its creation. This is one of the many anomalies that the Sam Pitroda Committee, set up under the previous government, had recommended. In fact, an example of how such a provision can be effective was demonstrated when Rajya Sabha TV was launched in 2011. Back then, Vice President Hamid Ansari was its chair and a committee comprising members of different political parties was tasked to oversee the channel. For a short period, India got a whiff of what a public broadcaster could contribute through the quality of some of the discussions on the channel that avoided the senseless noise and bluster of the multiple privately owned news channels in the country. But that experiment did not last long.

The law also provides for the setting up of a Broadcasting Council comprising 11 “persons of eminence in public life” to be appointed by the President of India and four members of Parliament from both houses. It was expected to address complaints by any member of the public about the content broadcast by Prasar Bharati. Yet, this has not yet been created. Again, the law envisaged the creation of a corporate entity, the Broadcasting Corporation of India. Yet this too has failed to materialise.

Instead, what we have is the pretence of a public broadcaster that is virtually the same as the previous dispensation when DD and AIR were managed directly by the MIB. In any case, the Prasar Bharati board can hardly be termed independent. It is always packed with people who are ideologically affiliated to the party in power, the current board or its chair being no ­exception. The differences between the board and the gov­ernment are never ideological; at best they are territorial. So, calling the current version of Prasar Bharati a “public broadcaster” is a misnomer as it remains a “government broadcasting agency,” as in the past.

There can also be no discussion on autonomy for a public broadcaster, even if one is created according to the existing law, as long as the MIB has a role in its operations. Indeed, the question we must ask is why India has such a ministry. What is it supposed to do apart from government propaganda or issuing licences to private media bodies? The government already has DD and AIR for propaganda and some other body can issue licences. Is the very existence of such a ministry not an anomaly in a functioning democracy?

There is little doubt that creating a public broadcaster that is autonomous is relevant. Such an institution could cover the many issues that the privately owned media choose to neglect because they do not enhance their viewership. It could also be the space for considered dialogue and debate, something that has been drowned out in the cacophony that constitutes current affairs and news on private channels. Finally, it could be a repository of the richness of India’s diversity. In the past, AIR in particular played an important role in recording the musical heritage of all parts of this diverse country. This and much more could be the remit of an independent public broadcaster. Prasar Bharati today is not even a pale imitation of this.

Updated On : 19th Mar, 2018

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