New Delhi: India’s booming media sector will soon have a new top bureaucrat. Asha Swarup relinquished charge as secretary in the ministry of information and broadcasting on Thursday, a little more than 14 months after taking up the post. Civil aviation secretary Ashok Cha-wla has been given additional charge of the ministry, and an official familiar with the development said Sushma Singh, currently secretary at the ministry for the development of the north-east region, is the leading candidate for the job.
In the news: Asha Swarup says that at the moment, the I&B ministry is not looking at changing the regulatory regime in news print media
Swarup presided over key decisions regarding new broadcasting technologies and faced calls to liberalize the sector and regulate news media.
A few hours before leaving the ministry to take over as the chief secretary of Himachal Pradesh, she spoke to Mint on the key issues before the ministry. Edited excerpts:
As you leave office, what strikes you as the most urgent need in this sector from the government’s perspective?
The dedicated broadcast regulator. It’s inevitable. We are trying to be like mature economies in all other aspects, so why not on this issue? All developed economies have powerful broadcast regulators. It is part of the Broadcast Bill and hopefully it will come up for consideration by Parliament soon.
What is the status of the content code for television news channels?
The committee set up under my chairmanship has finalized the draft code. It has been submitted to the Delhi high court. The court has asked for an action taken report. But the ministry is yet to take a final view on it. Once that is done, it will be final.
The ministry recently set up a TV content monitoring cell. Is this inspired by the mounting concerns on the way news channels are conducting their business?
No. This was actually part of the 10th Five-Year Plan. It was in the pipeline for some time. It got delayed because of several logistical issues. Right now, it can monitor 100 channels. Another 50 will be added soon. The idea is to monitor content during sensitive times such as riots. It will also provide footage to the inter-ministerial committee that oversees violation of the programming and advertising code whenever a complaint is received.
On news channels, the News Broadcasters Association has been saying it will form a peer regulatory body that will oversee news channels but it hasn’t done anything so far.
It was recently reported that the cabinet is considering a proposal to allow Indian editions of foreign news magazines with 100% identical content. What is the status on the proposal?
No such proposal has gone to the cabinet. We have received several requests on this but the ministry is yet to take a view.
There is a sense that news and current affairs segment could be next in line for liberalization of the foreign direct investment (FDI) cap.
No. There has been no real demand from the industry to raise the FDI cap in the sector. We have all along said that we will be happy to take any step to facilitate the growth of the industry but the industry hasn’t demanded it.
But there is tremendous interest from large publishers overseas.
Yes, there is demand from them but not from within the country. I can say that at the moment, the ministry is not looking at changing the current regulatory regime in news print media.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) had recently recommended that FDI cap in news broadcasting be raised to 49%. Is this likely to be allowed?
Even that’s not likely to happen. We have liberalized FDI cap in transmission and distribution platforms and allowed foreign investment up to 79%. But it is wrong to look at it as a trend that would be applied to everything.
The policy on HITS (head end in the sky) and IPTV (Internet protocol TV) was the last major issue you were dealing with. What is the status on the policy?
Well, it’s almost final and I was hoping that it would go out before me. There is one clarification from a ministry that needs to be cleared and one cabinet note that the minister has to clear. But otherwise it’s done.
Trai had recommended in 2005 that terrestrial broadcasting be opened up to private players as well. This would be an easy step towards digitization. Has the ministry considered this?
We looked at the proposal when we were deliberating on mobile television. We have asked Prasar Bharati for a view. It will require that Prasar Bharati share their infrastructure with private players.
But why should Prasar Bharati oppose it? It will open up a huge revenue stream for them.
Yes, and that’s our thinking as well.