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

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Minding the Media

Minding the Media

Will more government-owned media necessarily mean less bias in the media?

Should governments be in the business of broadcasting and distribution of media channels? In India, the question becomes slightly academic because the government has been in this business for decades, although more in terms of broadcasting, both radio and television, and less in that of distribution. But the issue has raised its head because of a recent recommendation by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Responding to several clarifications sought by state governments, principally Tamil Nadu but also Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat and the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, TRAI recommended in December 2012 that neither central nor state government ministries/departments, urban local bodies, panchayati raj institutions, government-owned companies and undertakings or joint ventures with the private sector, should enter into the “business of broadcasting” or distribution of TV channels. Although TRAI’s recommendations are not mandatory, the central government has chosen to be cautious in its response by setting up an inter-ministerial committee to look into the recommendation.

There are several separate and related issues that arise from TRAI’s recommendation. One is the questionable premise on which it is based. Quoting from a 1995 Supreme Court judgment, when the media scene was vastly different from what it is today, TRAI suggests that allowing government bodies into the business of broadcasting is not conducive to a healthy media environment. But will the media environment become healthier if the government removes itself from the business of broadcasting? While news broadcasts on government-owned radio and television are indisputably one-sided, as they tend to ignore opposition and amplify government achievements, the “news” segment is only a small part of what the existing government-run media put out. For instance, one tends to overlook the value of the much-maligned Doordarshan (DD) and the government-run All India Radio (AIR) in areas such as documentation of disappearing forms of music and dance from many parts of India, something that would have found little support in the commercially-driven media of today. Rajya Sabha TV and the Lok Sabha TV are today among the most informative current affairs channels amidst the stridency that dominates private television channels. Also, government-run educational television’s contribution, beginning with Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) cannot be discounted even if its quality has been patchy. And in places where there is no electricity or reliable power, AIR remains even today the only source of news and entertainment for millions of people in rural India.

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