New Delhi: India’s telecom regulator has recommended that the Union and state governments and the departments and companies they control be barred from the business of broadcasting and distributing television channels, seeking to prevent political influence in TV programming.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) also said the Centre must maintain an arm’s length relationship with Prasar Bharati, the state-owned public broadcaster, and ensure its functional independence and autonomy.
The regulator said that in case some government bodies have been allowed to enter the TV broadcasting and distribution business, they should be provided an appropriate exit route.
Trai’s recommendations were released on Friday and put up on its website after the ministry of information and broadcasting sought its views on the issue on 30 November.
If accepted by the government, the recommendations may push TV channels and cable distribution companies owned by governments or government arms out of business.
They include Arasu Cable TV Corp. Ltd, owned by the Tamil Nadu government, which has been waiting for a DAS (digital addressable system) licence to operate its cable business for several months. The company needs a new licence to run its cable business under the digital regime mandated by the government.
On Thursday, Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa said at the National Development Council meeting in New Delhi that despite repeated representations to the Prime Minister, the DAS licence was yet to be given to Arasu Cable.
“The deliberate non-issuance of licence to the state government-owned Arasu Cable is only to facilitate the business interests of a particular family which forms part of the ruling coalition at the Centre,” she said in a reference to Sun TV Network Ltd’s Sun Cable Vision, which is controlled by Kalanithi Maran.
Maran is a grand-nephew of her predecessor M. Karunanidhi, whose Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party is a part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition in power at the Centre.
Asked about Arasu’s prospects of getting a DAS licence after Trai’s recommendations, a senior official at Arasu Cable said, “It is a recommendation from Trai and the government of India is yet to accept it.”
Ashok Mansukhani, director of IndusInd Media and Communications Ltd, which operates the InCable network, said many local cable operators affiliated with Arasu may go out of business if the company was not given the DAS licence.
“After all, the government gave it the CAS (conditional access system) licence earlier, and is now withholding the DAS licence,” he said.
According to a senior Trai official, the recommendations clearly bar government and government entities from entering both television broadcasting and cable distribution. He said the ministry of information and broadcasting had specifically sought the authority’s views not just on Union and state governments controlling TV broadcasting and distribution businesses, but also on government-controlled entities running them or having a role in joint ventures with the private sector.
In making the recommendations, Trai built on suggestions sent by the authority in 2008 to the government. Those were based on the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission and a Supreme Court judgement that both didn’t favour state governments running their own broadcasting operations.
The Supreme Court reasoned that government control “is bound to colour...and may even distort...news, views and opinions”. “If government control is the acid test, then clearly it covers state government-owned companies, undertakings, joint ventures and funded entities. This is straightforward because in all such cases, the possibility of government control being exercised over the organs is real, distinct and likely...”
Experts in the media business say that the new clauses, if accepted, may jeopardize government plans to operate educational channels, for instance, even if they are broadcast through one of its entities.
Trai’s 2008 recommendations said political bodies should not be allowed to enter broadcasting and suggested necessary disqualifications to be incorporated into proposed legislation. Political groups and bodies affiliated to or people associated with political groups should be disqualified, it said.
“This is to pre-empt dummy companies acting as fronts of governments and government bodies to enter the business,” the Trai official said.
The authority said that pending enactment of a new legislation on broadcasting, the disqualifications should be implemented through an executive decision.
S. Bridget Leena in Chennai contributed to this story.