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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: The fig leaf of autonomy

Governments should admit that they like to control the media and other creative industries. At least then industry will know where it stands

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar 

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar

Leela Samson, chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification or CBFC, resigned last week. She cited governmental interference and the inability to make changes without any funds being released. Twelve members followed her. Soon, a war of words ensued with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B), under which CBFC falls. On Monday, the ministry appointed film-maker Pahlaj Nihalani as chairman. Besides films such as Aankhen (1993) and Shola Aur Shabnam (1992), Nihalani has made a six-minute video campaign for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Nine more members, reportedly sympathetic to the current government's right-wing ideology, have been appointed. The tussle between the liberals and others has been played out in the media, extensively.

This drama seems pointless. When has any government - whether it is led by the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - ever believed in letting any "body" operating in media and entertainment be? There is a fig leaf of autonomy bestowed through some act, but essentially every government, since independence, has been loath to give up control over anything to do with media. That also explains why the I&B ministry continues to be the policymaker, regulator and one of the biggest advertisers on media, all rolled in one. This creates a conflict of interest that doesn't exist in most free markets in the world.

Take Prasar Bharati, the "autonomous body" that runs Doordarshan and All India Radio. It is not allowed to hire people or fire them and it cannot leverage its considerable assets to raise money without the approval of the I&B ministry. In fact, it does not even own its assets, including 1,400 transmission towers, spectrum and real estate, because no government ever formally transferred them to the corporation after enacting the legislation to create it in 1997. It remains abjectly dependent on government dole - either as budgetary support or advertising.

A quick read through the Sam Pitroda Committee's 2014 report on Prasar Bharati, the fourth in a decade, will tell you that and more. Every government, irrespective of the party in power, has treated Doordarshan as an in-house mouthpiece meant to be controlled. They have studiously ignored all talk of financial and administrative autonomy.

In the early part of 2014, there was a ruckus over the alleged selective editing of an interview of BJP's then prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. He referred to Doordarshan's struggle to maintain its freedom. The (then) I&B minister, Manish Tewari, retorted that the government keeps an arm's length distance from Doordarshan. But most politicians forget their worry about the "freedom of Doordarshan" once they are in power. The result of successive governments ignoring, abusing or suppressing the power of Prasar Bharati has made it the pathetic body it is today. Doordarshan has the same not-for-profit funding model as BBC or an Al Jazeera, but it is nowhere close to them in quality or reach.

Then there is the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), the broadcast carriage regulator. While it has brought a lot of order to the chaos in the Indian television industry, it is clearly not as independent as the Act that created it would suggest. Almost every sensible paper or recommendation that Trai has/has made, is either ignored or put on the back burner. Digitisation, which could make India's television industry a force to reckon with globally, began very well in 2011. And Trai did a good job getting it going despite the madness that typifies India's on-ground TV distribution. But its deadline has been pushed back by the ministry largely because local cable operators, many of whom are politically affiliated, lobbied against it. That puts at least several millions of dollars worth of investment on hold. Not to mention the two billion-odd dollars that could be released as fully white, taxable pay revenue, if digitisation goes through completely.

CBFC is a statutory body under the I&B ministry to regulate the public exhibition of films under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act of 1952. The ministry, therefore, has the right to hire and fire people within. And most governments have used that power. Why then this lip service to "autonomy"?

It is time governments gave up on that fig leaf and admitted that they like controlling the media and other creative industries. At least then industry will know where it stands.

Twitter: @vanitakohlik

First Published: Tue, January 20 2015. 21:46 IST