In 2010, the national capital was running against time to host the Commonwealth Games, a world-class event that also gave India a chance to put on display its infrastructure development. Suddenly, the romanticism surrounding the Games was jerked to a rude halt and the government shaken from its slumber as the media exposed the scam around the preparations. The state and its functionaries were found doling out public money to fake companies in the name of infrastructure that was not even suited for local games.
Subsequently, the Adarsh housing and 2G scams hit the headlines and the government. Criticism came from all quarters as the Centre remained mute and unwilling to address people’s concerns. The Jan Lokpal movement of 2011 led by anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare and the public following and responsible media coverage it attracted were only proof of a public fedup with dishonest politicians. Then, in October 2011, retired Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju was appointed chairman of the Press Council. He called journalists ignorant and the media unreliable. This set the ball rolling against the media.
Katju sparked debates on media ethics and called for more powers to the Press Council, including powers to block government advertising to punish ‘erring’ media. It was fanned by scared and corrupt politicians who constantly spoke of the media going beyond its limits, and the Centre quickly called for a Bill to muzzle the freedom of expression of the Press as was done during the Emergency.
Ever since then, the dominant government discourse has been to sideline the media, to try and gag it using various tools. Almost all government ministries or departments, both at the Centre and in the States, threatened indirectlyto stop advertising over less than flattering reports about them. Considering that government advertising comes from tax-payer money, this was blatant abuse of public funds.
This was criticized in the media as part of government strategy to make smaller publications fall in line, for they will not be able to withstand the pressures of running a publication in the face of revenue loss. This was followed by talks of a regulatory body to weaken the free media, and calls for content regulation, primarily to control news, with the Information & Broadcast Ministry calling for a ‘techno-commercial’ regulator. Then there are tax squeezes like the recent notice to TV broadcasters to pay TDS on the 15% trade discount they give to advertising agencies — a step unprecedented since Independence.
Another point raised was curbs on social media, as politicians came under severe criticism from a young and aware population. The government’s key and, ironically, well-educated ministers argued in favour of steps to regulate content even on social media that provided a platform to people to share their views and opinions 24x7.
In the meantime, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) raked up an old issue, now dubbed the ad cap. According to this, TV channels cannot carry more than 10 minutes of paid advertising per clock hour. Earlier, this 10-minute cap per hour could be adjusted across the day. This is a deathknell for the booming Indian TV industry, with 800- plus channels that essentially survive on advertising.
Another term doing rounds in antimedia circles is ‘cross-media control’ which refers to curbs on newspapers owning TV and radio channels, and vice versa. The move was faulty from the beginning, for it was drawn from countries with no media plurality, forcing them to introduce minor ownership caps decades ago. These countries only had a handful of newspapers; the states were concerned that these could also own the handful of terrestrial TV stations, essentially local ones. Their content could thus have been exploited to serve the owners’ interests, thus leading to the caps. This is distinct from satellite TV, which cuts across territories and can be virtually unlimited in number. In India, all channels are not allowed into terrestrial TV; it is the government-funded Doordarshan which has a monopoly there.
This idea of cross-media control is being imposed at a time when the world media market is adopting convergence in the wake of easy access to thousands of newspapers and TV/radio stations from around the globe on computers, mobile or tablet. The government seems oblivious to the fact that there cannot be any specific ‘geographical market’ or ‘dominance’ of any one media in today’s time. It will also not be a healthy precedent in a democracy which relies on multiplicity of opinions so that its people are free to choose their own and not be ploughed under or forced to tow the line of the state. Moreover, the argument in favour of cross-media control falls flat when one considers the rising popularity of the Internet as an instant source of news. Cross-media curbs are now in fact being dismantled to create a level playing ground between traditional media, Internet and mobile. The government remains oblivious to the fact. There are also talks of a three year review of news licences and board of director clearances by the government for media houses.
The government needs to know that a democracy cannot operate in the absence of an active media. How far can it be allowed to perform independently, is the discourse being popularized by the same state machinery that opened its doors to globalization and liberalization in the form of free foreign entry to media markets? ‘Initiatives’ for the media, such as the ones highlighted above, only smack of the government’s desperation to save its own face. There is no doubting the fact that the media needs to address many of its own concerns, such as paid news and content regulation, but these need to be dealt with constructively, and not by undermining the interest of the free media.