New Delhi: Information and broadcasting (I&B) minister Manish Tewari is setting up an inter-ministerial committee to look into recommendations made by the telecom regulator on broadcasting issues. The former Congress party spokesperson spoke in an interview about media regulation, news on FM radio, and the impact of changing aspirations of youth on politics and governance. Edited excerpts:
On 30 December, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) recommended that the government and its entities should not enter television broadcasting and distribution. Will you accept the recommendations?
In 2008, Trai had recommended that government entities, essentially state, local self governments and other government institutions should not be allowed in distribution or broadcasting space. For some reason, no final call was taken on them. When I assumed office, it would have been inappropriate on my part to take a call on something which was vintage. I, therefore, requested the ministry that a reference must be made to Trai. In the past, requests of state governments and the human resource development ministry to enter broadcasting were turned down. Arasu (Cable TV Corp. Ltd) in Tamil Nadu was granted a licence with a caveat that it was conditional and depended on the government taking a final view on Trai recommendations. Now the recommendations have come in.
To my surprise, I found that there was no institutional mechanism to examine Trai recommendations within the ministry of information and broadcasting. With my experience on the joint parliamentary committee on 2G, I requested the ministry that an inter-ministerial committee on the lines of the Telecom Commission—not exactly a mirror image as it was created by a cabinet notification in 1989—be set up.
All Trai recommendations will be examined by this inter-ministerial format before the government takes a final view on it. So I do not want to second-guess at this stage what the view of the inter-ministerial committee will be. But as you are aware, eventually Trai recommendations are non-binding. If you personally ask me, it would be appropriate if the government defers to statutory bodies unless and until there is some exigency which compels the government to take a view otherwise.
Has the committee already been set up?
We have cleared the proposal and it will be headed by an additional secretary in MIB (ministry of I&B). I have requested that a permanent structure be created. We have various references with Trai, which are pending such as monopolies in the distribution space, cross-holdings in the media sector, the television ratings issue. Each of these issues is extremely complex and sophisticated.
The cross-holdings restriction in media will be a hot potato.
This was a reference made by my predecessor. There are issues with regard to both vertical and horizontal cross-holding. I have asked Trai to fast-track all these references so that we can take a final view.
Should not the vertical and horizontal cross-holding issue be left to the Competition Commission of India (CCI)?
CCI, as I understand it, administers the question of monopolies. Therefore, there have to be laws in place for them to administer. If within the CCI Act there are certain statutory provisions which apply to what should be the maximum holding in case you want to define what is the monopolistic practice, I am not clear as the statute is not before me. I understand the line ministries do need to take a call. It is not proper to leave this issue hanging like the sword of Damocles. If you want cross-holding restriction, it should be clear; if you do not want it, it should be clear as well to the media and entertainment industries.
How do you deal with this sensitive issue as there are bound to be allegations about seeking to control media?
That is why I said most issues pertaining to the broadcasting sector are extremely sensitive. That is why the inter-ministerial mechanism is being created so that the charge of arbitrariness or mala fide, even if it is completely unfounded, should not take root in the first place.
Can media really escape regulation? How do you balance freedom of the press and the increasing demand being made for regulating media?
First of all, I am under no delusion that I can tame tigers. And I have no intention of taming tigers either out of a vocation or a profession. Having said that, you need to make a distinction between regulation and administering a constitutional remit. Regulation would be if I tell you to do a particular thing or not do a particular thing. Administering a constitutional remit, which essentially is Article 19, the caveats to Article 19, other statutory enactments legislated by Parliament, is another sphere altogether. When the I&B ministry issues an advisory, it is not trying to regulate or gag (television channels), but only re-apprising them that there are statutory obligations they undertook when they signed up for a licence and it would be advisable to keep those in mind. If somebody takes umbrage to that or says that we are trying to restrict the freedom of press or freedom of speech and expression, I would like to say that it is completely erroneous. That is neither the intent nor is it advisable in a very healthy democracy.
Cross-holdings in media and monopolies in cable have been referred to Trai separately. Don’t they overlap?
I did not make the first reference. For monopolies in distribution space, since we were looking at FM radio auctions, we found that in the licensing conditions of radio channels auctioned in phase one and phase two, there are market caps and sectoral caps. We felt it would be fair if similar caps are there in (television) distribution as well. Eventually, monopoly is the antithesis of choice. By ensuring plurality, you strengthen the consumer.
Are you looking at allowing news in private radio?
At this point, as I understand, there is a limited proposal that is on the table and it is yet to go to the eGoM (empowered group of ministers). It would not be appropriate for me to say anything. But on the larger question of whether it is advisable to allow news on private FM radio channels, I think it can be the subject of a wider consultation. If there is a broad consensus among stakeholders, and by stakeholders I do not only mean the industry, but others who have an interest in the manner in which the entire radio sector evolves, then I don’t think the government would be opposed to looking at it.
So the proposal is alive.
The good thing about the government is that all proposals at all times are alive.
Will it come through in the next 18 months?
It would all depend on how the consultations pan out. These are extremely intricate and sensitive questions that require to be put through an exhaustive consultation process and at the end of the process if there is agreement, government would not be averse to looking at it.
Is the consultation process on?
At the moment, no. A call has to be taken whether this consultation has to be done by Trai or suo motu by the ministry.
Is there a move to raise the limit on foreign direct investment in news media?
At this point in time, I don’t think there is anything on the table. There are representations which keep coming from broadcasting and print.
What are your views on the issue?
As a minister, I am not supposed to have a personal view on it. My view will be the institutional view.
Isn’t there a problem with the government’s communication strategy?
A fair critique, I accept in its entirety. We are trying to surmount a 20th century information challenge with 19th century tools at our disposal. The communications apparatus of the government has to undergo a fundamental overhaul. As we speak, we are in the process of seeing how the government can engage with people on social media. After all these are content-agnostic platforms. They are technology platforms and as open to governments as to an ordinary citizen.
What should be the role of Prasar Bharati?
I think there is a very serious need to have a debate in this country as to what the focus of the public broadcaster should be. Should the public broadcaster be engaged in multifarious activities or should it confine itself to a more narrow prism.
We have an arm’s length relationship with Prasar Bharati notwithstanding the fact that it consumes three-fourths of our budget. If you do believe that it should be a board-driven organization, then the next logical step would be that its financial autonomy also should then stand guaranteed through appropriate appropriations by Parliament.
But then it brings into question the larger issue—if Prasar Bharati is completely autonomous and if Trai does not allow Centre, state and panchayati raj in broadcasting or distribution, then how do governments really disseminate their policies, programmes and schemes to the people? Eventually, a government is supposed to subserve the larger public good and that public good needs to be conveyed to people. I would welcome if there is a media-led debate, maybe an edit-page debate on some of these fundamental issues which have an import on the constitutional remit of Article 19.
Is there a larger message that politicians are learning from the recent protests? Is the conventional paradigm of governance shifting?
The takeaway from last fortnight is that what had been, most unfortunately, an accepted silent practice whereby men could get away with, for lack of a better word, blue murder in their attitude towards women in public spaces, that premise has been fundamentally questioned. It was symptomatic of decades of rage which surfaced because of this extremely horrendous incident. The takeaway for politicians is that you need to ensure that public order or safety and security of citizens, which is the first fundamental remit of any state, is scrupulously and assiduously policed.
Is the fundamental paradigm of engagement of media with society or politics with society altering?
It is something which is evolving. Government and political processes are also trying to come to terms with this transformation. A part of this transformation has been enabled by new media coming of age. In India, you had one broadcaster in 1991. In 2012, you have 852. But that is top-down broadcasting. In the past five years, seven crore new broadcasters have emerged, who are on social media, who have the ability to put their voice into the public space, band with like-minded people and articulate themselves in a collective manner. This is a new reality which has emerged. This demands that the fundamental remit of governance is clearly defined: that state must secure the right to life and property of all its citizens. That is something which is increasingly becoming non-negotiable. They are absolutely correct out there. If a state is not able to provide physical safety and security to its people to live and work fearlessly, there is a systemic failing somewhere which needs to be addressed.
Is India at the cusp of transitioning from an exceptions-based regime to a rules-based regime?
I don’t think that we were ever an exception-based regime if you look at the legal and judicial system of India... The one thing which has been a constant check on the executive has been the Indian judiciary in its various manifestations. We have always been rules-based.
But the freedom to misuse the system was always there.
If the import of your question is, the arbitrary and discretionary use or abuse of power is now something which is being questioned, I think that’s a fair premise. In the 1990s, when you saw a lot of judicial activism take place, this was the fundamental premise that was questioned. If you are a citizen of the country then howsoever high you may be, the law is above you.