It is difficult to support the recommendations of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) that government or its companies, local bodies, and political parties be barred from owning or controlling broadcast channels or infrastructure. TRAI’s arguments, partly understandable, deserve a review in today’s environment.

Broadcasting is a key instrument for sharing information, opinion and debate -- vital to governance and lives of citizens. A monopoly in sector, whether public or private, goes against public interest in information or entertainment.

However, government’s monopoly in this sector is as bad as its deliberate exclusion. While the former suggests a misplaced primacy of government in today’s complex world of information, the latter questions its legitimacy as even a possible source.

Private players, however good, cannot possibly exhaust all options that a truly informed citizen might need. Indeed, it is both acceptable and desirable that government and private sources of information compete vigorously.

Twenty years ago, and especially during the 21 months of Emergency during 1975-1977, the government could abuse media easily. Now, over 70 per cent households can access satellite television, with over 800 TV and dozens of FM radio channels available.

Use of government channels for propaganda is possible but few can argue the situation is unchanged, least of all channels, or the politicians they lambast regularly. Also, pervasive editorialising and mobilising, by private TV channels, is not that far from propaganda, even if it is well-meaning. The sector’s own self-regulatory body has reprimanded several channels for inaccurate and irresponsible broadcasts.

TRAI’s recommendations recognise the need and role of public broadcasting. However its opposition to entry of government agencies in the sector hinges on a perverse assumption that Prasar Bharati accomplishes that task adequately. Few serious players or researchers would accept that. Also, if the recommendations require closure of the TV channels like Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha TV, the space for in-depth analysis will shrink further.

We need plurality in messaging. Legality, not the content or source of a message, must determine whether it can be broadcast.

Abuse, by politicians and bureaucrats will have to be addressed firmly by laws in place on corruption, hate, violence, etc. Creative regulation is necessary, but not just of who controls channels or infrastructure.

State control of broadcasting is manifestly difficult in today’s age of social media. Also, there are smarter ways to mitigate the residual risk by ensuring viability of competing voices. For instance, the BBC in UK is funded by the fee levied on each TV set, while private TV is funded through advertising.

Disallowing private advertising on government channels in India can prevent collusive abuse by government or private players. However, mandatorily excluding government or its affiliates is illogical.

(The author is Telecom Consultant and Director, Com First Pvt Ltd.)

(This article was published on January 4, 2013)
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