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Another caged bird: how the govt cracked down on All India Radio

Vishakh Unnikrishnan | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:45 IST

The clampdown

  • All India Radio aired a story critical of the govt on 9 August
  • The story was that the Editors\' Guild of India had criticised the govt for sending diktats to news channels
  • Ironically, the I&B ministry clamped down on AIR for running a story about it clamping down on other media
  • It demanded an explanation from AIR\'s Director-General (News) for running this negative story

The operandi

  • AIR\'s parent body, Prasar Bharati, is supposed to be an autonomous corporation
  • In reality, it is reliant on the govt for almost everything - recruitments, infrastructure etc
  • The govt issues advisories to AIR and DD from time to time
  • But the Modi govt has started influencing it in a more direct manner

The government of India seems to run an aviary of caged birds. The CBI has often been talked about. Now, it's the AIR.

Last week, A Surya Prakash, the chairman of Prasar Bharti, re-asserted the need for a public service broadcaster. "In a country as diverse as ours, I think the public service broadcaster plays a very critical role in ensuring the unity of such a diverse community," he said.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, though, seems to harbour a different sentiment. On the same day as his comment, 12 August, the ministry demanded an explanation from the Director General (news) of All India Radio for clearing a story that was aired three days before.

It was a double clampdown. A clampdown about a clampdown.

The story in question?

AIR carried a report that the Editors' Guild of India had criticised the government's notification against TV channels.

Earlier this month, the I&B ministry had issued show-cause notices to three news channels about their coverage of the dramatic final hours before Yakub Memon's hanging on 30 July. Unhappy with the coverage, the ministry had sought an explanation from the channels on whether they had violated the programme code.

The Editors' Guild issued a statement criticising the government's action, asserting that Memon's case was before the Supreme Court, and that the discussion over his execution was in the nature of political speech and should not be curbed.

Autonomy only in name

The Prasar Bharati board was formed through an Act of Parliament in 1990, which took seven years to implement. Its main purpose was to grant autonomy to All India Radio and Doordarshan, which were previously under the direct control of the I&B ministry. But this autonomy remains only in name, as evidenced by the ministry's latest demand for an explanation.

Prasar Bharati has very little command over itself. The corporation cannot hire its own people, nor can it raise money. It doesn't own the assets it uses. Under the Prasar Bharati Act as it is, the administrators have very little power, and is completely beholden to the I&B ministry.

Ex-Prasar Bharati chairperson Mrinal Pande says, "This demand for an explanation dispels doubt, if any, about the much tom-tommed autonomy of India's public broadcaster. It saddens but does not surprise."

A senior official at Prasar Bharati shares Pande's sentiment. "The editors of AIR and Doordarshan have been issued an advisory to refrain from anti-government news and views. The latest move only reaffirms the fact that our hands are tied from broadcasting fair and neutral news," the official says.

On 12 Aug, the I&B ministry demanded an explanation from the AIR for airing a story criticising the govt

The official believes the latest move is unconstitutional and impairs AIR from delivering fair and unbiased coverage to a vast majority of the population, for whom it remains the sole source of relevant information.

Officials from the ministry declined to comment on the matter, as did the man at the receiving end of the ministry's ire, AIR DG (News) Mohan Chandak. He stated that he is only focussed on doing his job, to deliver free and fair news.

Crossing the line

Journalists working with AIR, however, agree that it is about time private FM players are allowed to broadcast news, since the monopoly on the airwaves allows the government to do as it pleases.

"To question the editors of AIR on their discretion is outrageous. As Doordarshan and AIR run on the taxpayer's money, they need to ensure unbiased and fair information reaches the masses. Their autonomy should be protected," says Sevanti Ninan, media critic and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org.

On 15 May, the government issued a circular asking AIR to promote the government's various initiatives. "It was definitely more of an order than an advisory, and it was unprecedented in Prasar Bharati's history," says another Prasar Bharati official.

Pande declined to comment when asked to draw a comparison between her own time at the helm of Prasar Bharati, and the present under Surya Prakash. But Prasar Bharati officials agree that never before has the board's autonomy been questioned to such an extent.

Repeated instances of interference Prasar Bharati's autonomy has been questioned in the past as well. In 2010, under the UPA regime, Doordarshan News journalist Harikesh Bahadur Singh Gautam alleged that correspondents and anchors were appointed on the basis of family connections and political influence. The Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), after looking into the matter, quashed all appointments.

The UPA government had also issued advisories to channels during their coverage of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, but former I&B minister Manish Tewari asserts they were just 'advisories' and not show-cause notices.

The CEO of Prasar Bharati, Jawhar Sircar, was not available for comment. But The Business Standard had previously reported that his hands were tied. "I have reached a state of equilibrium. I have realised that I cannot be the only autonomist around while 30,000 people are screaming 'we don't want autonomy'. I can't get autonomy for Prasar Bharati; the rest of the country and the machinery has to support it," he had said.

Global concern State-owned broadcasters across the globe have time and again faced criticism for their coverage, and government influence. Even the critically-acclaimed British Broadcasting Corporation has faced immense criticism in the past.

In 2010, the then-director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, had admitted the organisation's struggle to keep news unbiased under Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in the 1980s. All this, and the fact that the AIR and DD earn more brickbats than plaudits, presents an imperative need to overhaul the Prasar Bharati Act of 1990.

Only this can ensure the government maintains an arm's distance from the 'autonomous' institution.

First published: 18 August 2015, 1:23 IST
Vishakh Unnikrishnan @sparksofvishdom

A graduate of the Asian College of Journalism, Vishakh tracks stories on public policy, environment and culture. Previously at Mint, he enjoys bringing in a touch of humour to the darkest of times and hardest of stories. One word self-description: Quipster.