ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Media Reform and Regulation since Liberalisation

The last decade has seen a rapid transformation in the distribution of cable and satellite TV services in India. The 1991 Gulf war marked the beginning of foreign satellite broadcasting and the entry of commercial cable networks in India. That cable television now reaches about 25 million Indian homes is an index of the fast pace of growth within the new television distribution industry. This may be seen as part of a more general change that encompasses the print media too. It is true that the circulation of major newspapers, especially that of regional language publications, has been rising steadily since the 1980s. This expansion may be partly fuelled by an increased demand for political news and analysis, but it would be at least equally true to say that these increases in circulation have been largely market-driven and have been achieved through aggressive selling of advertising space and consolidation within the newspaper industry. Market pressures also lie behind the present moves to open the print media, especially the large regional language markets to foreign capital.1 For historical reasons, including the low credibility enjoyed by the official broadcasting agency, Doordarshan, it has proved easier to push through such measures first in the case of the electronic media. In this context, the current proposals of reform in media law to accommodate these changing conditions raise discomfiting questions about control over ownership and distribution.

The need for media autonomy by dismantling the government’s control of AIR and DD had been a key issue in discussions on media reform since the emergency. However, with the arrival of privatised commercial broadcasting, the focus of debate has clearly shifted away from principles of free expression to questions of economic control and ‘permissible’ levels of consolidation within the industry. It is no longer just governments who feel threatened by the prospects of an efficiently run, autonomous Doordarshan. Given its reach, a creditable Doordarshan (DD), especially in the news department, would equally pose a serious threat to the private broadcasting networks and their partner firms who control the television distribution business today. The woeful quality of reception of the DD channels may be partly attributed to poor technical standards, but it is hardly unimaginable that disingenuous tampering with the DD signal by the private distribution networks may often be equally responsible. With revenues from advertising and subscriptions directly tied to the reach of the cable networks, increasingly the right to control ‘distribution territories’ has clearly emerged as a key issue.

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