The Union Law Ministry has decided to start its own television channel. This week The Times of India reported that the channel would educate the public in legal matters and feature debates and discussions around such hot-button issues as triple talaq or the Uniform Civil Code.
However, the law ministry’s proposed initiative is totally at odds with the recommendations of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) had twice sought TRAI’s recommendations on whether or not central and state governments and their departments or entities could enter into the business of broadcasting and distribution of television channels. On both occasions — in 2008 and 2012 — the regulator had expressly advised against any such move in order to prevent political influence in television programming.
The TRAI recommendation dated 28.12.2012 states: “The Authority recommends that the Central Government Ministries, Central/State government Departments, Central/State Government owned companies, Central/State Government undertakings, joint ventures of the Central/State Governments and the private sector, and Central/State government funded entities should not be allowed to enter into the business of broadcasting and or distribution of TV channels.”
The business of broadcasting includes the starting of a television channel.
“The law ministry launching a television channel is illegal,” asserts Congressman and former I&B Minister Manish Tewari. “Did they seek a re-reference from TRAI? How can the recommendation be overturned?”
The Hoot’s repeated attempts to get a reaction from MIB elicited no response.
It is of course true that TRAI is a regulatory body and that its recommendations are not binding on the government. This particular one is pending with the MIB — the current ministry, as well as the one under Tewari during the second half of UPA-2, neither accepted nor rejected it.
Sunil K. Gupta, principal advisor (broadcasting and cable services), TRAI, confirms that the regulator has received no further queries on this from MIB. “We can give recommendations, but it is up to the government to accept or reject them,” he says.
That said, it’s tough to dispute the fundamental rationale of TRAI’s stand on this matter. In support of its recommendations, the regulator cited a 1995 Supreme Court ruling which said, “…the broadcasting media should be under the control of the public as distinct from the government…Government control, which in effect, means control of the political party or parties in power…is bound to colour, and in some cases, may even distort the news, views and opinions expressed through the media. It is not conducive to free expression of contending viewpoints and opinions which is essential for the growth of a healthy democracy.”
TRAI also pointed to the Sarkaria Commission report (1983) on Centre-State relations where the Commission had advised against allowing state governments to have their own broadcast stations and broadcasting corporations. Since the executive is controlled by political entities, “there could be a temptation to use the media wrongly in party interest, and not necessarily in national interest,” it said.
That is precisely why a channel run by the law ministry is problematic. A vigorous debate on important socio-legal legal issues like the triple talaq or the Uniform Civil Code is certainly needed. But how free and objective would such a debate be on a government-run channel, one that is likely to reflect the political and ideological agenda of the ruling party?
This is not the first time that the BJP-led NDA government has launched television channels. In December 2016, close on the heels of demonetisation, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) started DigiShala, a TV channel dedicated to educating the public in digital payments systems. DigiShala, which is now a 24-hour channel, is available on Doordarshan’s direct-to-home platform Free Dish and also on Zee Network’s Dish TV.
DigiShala is not part of the Doordarshan stable. It is part of a cluster of channels that are being run by the Bhaskaracharya Institute of Space Applications and Geo-Informatics (BISAG), Ahmedabad, on frequencies allocated to it by the Department of Space.
BISAG, which itself is under the Gujarat government’s department of science and technology, also runs a bouquet of 32 channels launched by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in August 2016 under its Swaym Prabha scheme. The Swayam Prabha channels broadcast educational programmes which are available on DD.
The Law ministry’s proposed channel is to come out of the Swayam Prabha bouquet as well.
T.P. Singh, Director, BISAG, reveals that the institute also runs 16 channels launched by the Gujarat government in October 2015. Called Vande Gujarat, these educational channels can be accessed on DD's Free Dish.
Clearly, though the channels ride on the public service broadcaster, their content and programming are managed by government departments and agencies.
Sources at MeitY say that since these channels are not commercial but educational in nature, they fall outside the purview of the TRAI recommendations. However, as TRAI’s Sunil K. Gupta points out, “The recommendations made no categorisation of channels.” According to the regulator, central and state governments ought not to be in the arena of broadcasting or distribution of TV channels. It made no exceptions to that rule.
Besides, with so many controversial spins being given to Indian history in school and college text books in recent times, educational content is hardly immune from manipulation. If text books in Rajasthan can claim that Rana Pratap won the battle of Haldighati against Mughal emperor Akbar (even though historical facts affirm otherwise), is there any guarantee that educational channels will not indulge in similar distortions in their course content?
Of course, TRAI’s recommendations have been flouted before. Arasu Cable TV, a cable distribution network owned by the Tamil Nadu government, was set up in 2007. As per the recommendations, an exit route should have been provided to government agencies that were already broadcasting or distributing TV channels. But Arasu Cable TV continues its operations to this day.
As for the Law ministry’s plan to launch a television channel, it is not just against the recommendations of TRAI. It is also against the widely accepted principle worldwide that state presence in media is inimical to democracy and free speech. Though routinely pilloried as a handmaiden of the government, even Prasar Bharati, India’s public service broadcaster, which comprises Doordarshan and All India Radio, is mandated to function as an autonomous body, independent of the government.
The NDA government has been hugely successful in reaching out to the public through every media platform available to it, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, apps, radio and so on. Will state-run TV channels be the next big thing in the government’s sophisticated 360-degree media strategy?