SC questions curbs on news broadcast on private FM radio

The Supreme Court asks the government to respond within four weeks

The TRAI and an expert panel of the govt have both already recommended that private radio channels be allowed to broadcast such content. Photo: Mint
The TRAI and an expert panel of the govt have both already recommended that private radio channels be allowed to broadcast such content. Photo: Mint

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday heard a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenging the prohibition on news broadcasts on private FM radio channels and issued notice to the central government.

The PIL filed by the civil society group Common Cause came up before a two-judge bench comprising Chief Justice P. Sathasivam and Justice R. Gogoi. The civil society group was represented by lawyer Prashant Bhushan. The government has been directed to respond within four weeks.

The petitioners have asked the court to “quash the impugned provisions of the Policy Guidelines and of the Grant of Permission Agreements framed by the Government”, that prohibit private FM radio stations and community radio stations from broadcasting their own news and current affairs programmes like television channels or the print media.

The petitioners’ argument is that the policies and guidelines on private radio and community radio that bar them from broadcasting news and current affairs violate the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution. “It is submitted that the right to freedom of speech and expression also includes the right to information, which encompasses diverse interpretations of news and current affairs,” the petition said.

They also say the policy guidelines are “arbitrary and discriminatory” as no such restrictions are placed on television channels and print media products. “India is perhaps the only democratic country in the world where the dissemination of news and current affairs programmes on the radio remains a monopoly of the government-owned broadcaster. No other democratic country has similar curbs. None of the USA’s 14,000-plus radio stations, the 2,000-odd stations in Spain or the 1,000-plus stations each in Italy, France, Greece and Australia are barred from airing news and cultural affairs,” the petition said.

Prashant Bhushan said it was strange that news was allowed on television but not on radio. “While television channels earn hundreds of crores, radio makes very little money. If the issue is of regulation, then both television and radio can be regulated. In case of objectionable content being broadcast, action can be taken against radio broadcasters (too),” he said.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and an expert committee of the government have both already recommended that radio channels be allowed to broadcast such content. “Prohibitory regulations of such nature are not logical,” Bhushan said.

For community radio, the petitioners argue that they should not be used only to broadcast government advertisements and schemes. It is important for these radio stations to engage with local governments and promote transparency and accountability, they said. To be sure, although the government guidelines on phase I and phase II of radio privatization that took off in 2000, do not allow FM stations to broadcast news, for phase III, for which radio frequencies are yet to be auctioned, the government has made a small concession and allowed radio stations to carry news from All India Radio, part of the state-owned broadcaster. However, the channels have to carry the AIR feeds as they are and cannot modify them. “Honestly, it is of no use to us as the AIR style of news does not really go with our contemporary and funky radio stations. We have been waiting for news to open up for six years,” said the director of a company that operates radio stations in smaller towns, asking not to be identified.

He added that the company is happy with the PIL as it stands to benefit the industry. The chief executive of a prominent radio station in Delhi agreed that the move was good for the industry as news would make radio more relevant. He declined to be named, saying it was too early to comment on the matter. The promoter of a bouquet of radio channels and member of the AROI (Association of Radio Operators for India) said that the industry association had nothing to do with the PIL as it had been asking the government directly to open up news for a long time.

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