Broadcasting media is a powerful factor in the formulation of views and in influencing people at large. It is therefore imperative that the viewers and listeners have the possibility of getting an impartial presentation of news and views. Simultaneously, there is the requirement of the right to express views freely. The regulator, therefore, faces the dilemma of deciding how to balance these two requirements.
TRAI has recently come up with recommendations which, among other things, categorically suggests that no State government or State-controlled body may be permitted to have ownership of broadcasting or broadcast distribution facilities.
In a democratic set-up, while freedom of expression of views cannot be contested, there is a need to ensure that this freedom is not misused to propagate views that are not in line with national interests and objectives. This implies association of certain level of responsibility with the broadcaster.
An independent regulator’s job is, therefore, to ensure that such responsibilities are being carried out in practice by broadcasters. This can best be done by setting out guidelines not only for the content but also in regard to the ownership. In our country, content regulation is largely through a monitored self-regulation process. The regulator should prescribe guidelines and regulations to ensure that the ownership of the broadcasting entity does not increase the possibility of misuse.
The Supreme Court has warned against monopoly of information and views. Ensuring plurality of views, opinions and a fair and balanced presentation of news and public issues requires the regulator to make sure that adequate competition exists, while minimising misuse possibilities. In this regard, the Supreme Court further implied that ‘government control’ of a broadcast media was bound to colour and may even distort news, views and opinions. It is evident that such government control could either be direct or through a government-owned entity/corporation or any other body. Once we accept the above arguments and analysis, it follows that ownership of broadcast media —either directly or indirectly by a State government or any of its entities — should also not be permitted, as recommended by TRAI.
Internationally, countries generally have similar restrictions and where the rules are somewhat more liberal, the societies are highly mature and stable. For our country, one recalls the observations of the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State relations which observed ‘‘…. In this country….parochialism, chauvinism, casteism and communalism are pervasive…’’ In such an environment, there is clearly a huge risk of misuse if state control of media is permitted.
There is, therefore, enough justification for TRAI, in its recommendations, not permitting State governments or their entities to own broadcasting facilities.
(The author is former Member TRAI and former Chairman, BSNL.)