I congratulate you for releasing the strategic plan of the ministry of information and broadcasting for 2011-2017. This is certainly the first of its kind since the inception of the ministry.
It’s impressive to see a clear statement of purpose and action elaborated for each of the sectors and units under the ministry’s ambit. I am glad that this document has been prepared based on discussions with stakeholders as well as some research. In the current larger discourse on governance issues, such documents are vital for bringing in much needed transparency and accountability.
I would like to make the following observations on this strategic plan of the ministry, particularly on two major issues that I find disturbing in an otherwise edifying document.
The first is the dissonance in the ministry’s overall vision, objective and structure, given the emerging media and communication scenario in the country.
The ministry’s vision statement reads: “To disseminate information on the policies, programmes and achievements of (the) government and provide an enabling environment for the media and entertainment sector to play a pivotal role in providing accurate information, wholesome entertainment and nurturing diverse opinions for educating and empowering the people of India to be informed citizens.”
Accordingly, this ministry is structured into three broad arms: information, films and broadcasting.
Of these, the information arm primarily works at providing publicity for the policies and programmes of the government through multimedia campaigns. It also oversees the administration of press or print media-related rules (such as the Press Council Act, 1978; the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867 and the Central Press Accreditation Rules).
The film section looks after the administration of the Cinematograph Act, 1952, while also looking into all developmental issues to do with the film industry and its overall promotion.
Finally, the broadcast unit manages the implementation of laws relating to radio and television broadcasting. It is also responsible for promotion, facilitation, monitoring and development of the broadcasting and television industry in the country.
However, with private players dominant in these sectors, these three arms are inadequate to address the emerging issues as visualized in the ministry’s vision statement.
Clearly, the scenario has changed in the last three decades. Today we have made strong advances in many media and communication sectors, including films, print, direct-to- home television, FM radio, and so on. Of course, there is more to be done in other sectors such as community radio, last mile connectivity, public service broadcasting, professional quality, content standards, and others.
Hence, providing an enabling environment for the media and entertainment sector is an important job for the ministry. Sadly, the ministry’s objective and policies are often at cross purposes on several platforms.
A classic example is Prasar Bharati and its channel Doordarshan. The state-funded Doordarshan often struggles to find its feet as a public service broadcaster and a government mouthpiece. Additionally, it is expected to compete with popular private channels while sticking to strict content guidelines at the same time.
Given technological advances, this may be a good time to restructure the various units of the ministry to make them more relevant to current and future settings.
The second disquieting issue in this document is the fact that the ministry seems to have abandoned its responsibility to ensure that private broadcasters maintain and regulate content standards. The document clearly reiterates your view that content is best regulated by respective channels. The long-overdue proposal to have an independent authority for the broadcasting sector—one that has been under consideration on request of Parliament, the Supreme Court and various civil society groups— has clearly been discarded.
While it is admirable for the government not to interfere in areas that stir sensitive issues such as the freedom of speech, it is equally critical that it puts checks and balances in place to regulate these areas. In this, the ministry cannot abdicate its responsibility.
Whether it is news or entertainment, the responsibility of functioning according to existing codes and maintaining content standards may certainly rest on the respective channels. But how do we find ways and means to ensure their accountability? Just last week, we had one regional language channel broadcasting a “sting” operation on the gay culture in its city. The channel publicised names and identities in their sensational news coverage on this delicate issue, in contravention of all established norms.
I am sure you are aware of the increasing number of allegations of such negligent reportage. At times, this degenerates into abuse, and even blackmail, by many television news channels. Like paid news, this menace is difficult to verify. Yet it is a developing trend that is eroding the media’s credibility.
In the case of broadcasting, the immense growth and success of the sector has been often attributed to lack of government interference and policy framework. However, most of the troubles of this sector are also often blamed on your ministry.
The new strategic plan symbolizes an attempt to improve the ministry’s role and relevance. I would humbly request the ministry not to think in terms of “business as usual”, but also to consider all possible challenges that the information, communication and media sectors will face in our country.
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.