Free the media, abolish the I&B ministry

Dear Prakash Javadekar, Your first instincts as Information and Broadcasting minister seem sound. You say you are willing “philosophically and ideologically“ to work towards abolition of the I&B Ministry, which has no place in a democracy with a free media. You accept there is no logic in prohibiting news broadcasts by private radio stations.

Rather than tinker with details here or there, please start with the blunt premise that the electronic media must be exactly as free as the print media, qualified only by technical limitations like spectrum availability. It’s absurd that India’s print media is truly free, but its electronic media (especially radio stations) face substantial, sometimes absurd controls.

Politically, the best way to sell reforms is to say you are liberating the media from unprincipled, illogical controls created by the Congress Party since Independence. Despite Nehru’s commitment to a free press, he made radio a state monopoly. Later, Indira Gandhi made TV a state monopoly. Their lame excuse was that such powerful media had to be government controlled in the public interest. In fact this served the very private interest of the Congress, which ruled almost continuously from Independence to 1989, using AIR and Doordarshan as its own propaganda vehicles. The consequent loss of credibility did not disturb Congress politicians. When Indira Gandhi was killed in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi tuned into BBC to get the details: he knew he couldn’t depend on AIR! This era ended when satellite technology enabled Indians to set up satellite dishes and receive foreign broadcasts, notably from CNN during the 1991 Gulf War. This was illegal, but unstoppable. Star TV followed, uplinking its programmes from Hong Kong. Entrepreneurs began distributing dish feed by stringing cables (again illegally) across houses. The government finally surrendered, and formally allowed private TV. But till today it has kept terrestrial TV broadcasting as a state monopoly. Hundreds of millions of villagers without dishes or cable see only Doordarshan.

Private FM radio stations are barred from carrying the news. This is unprincipled, and also defies logic: private TV channels carry 24/7 news. Yet successive governments have continued preserving AIR’s radio news monopoly, just to serve the ruling party’s needs. The ban on FM radio news was later relaxed, but only to the extent of letting FM stations use AIR news feed! This was not liberalization at all, but a way of boosting the audience of the state monopoly.

Moreover, the number of radio stations remains tightly controlled. When cities can have newspapers without limit, why limit radio stations? Actual licensing today does not utilize the full radio spectrum available.

All businessmen fear competition, including radio companies. But you, Mr Javadekar, should maximize competition and choice for all consumers, and not worry about the profits of existing licencees. Please apply the same principles you apply to the print media — no restrictions save technical and legal ones (like checking communally inflammatory material).

Forget the bogus argument that a multitude of radio stations will make it difficult to track abuses by communal or jihadi elements. These elements face no formal barriers in the print media, or the internet. Technology has made obsolete the notion that all news or communications can be monitored and (if necessary) censored in advance. Anybody can reach an audience of millions with a single click today.

You say you are worried about cross-ownership of different sorts of media by big groups. This too is an obsolete worry. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak controlled all the print and electronic media, yet could not check a mass uprising through users of Facebook, Twitter and cellphones. The social media also sparked mass uprisings in other Arab countries with completely controlled media.

The social media revolution has made obsolete the notion of big companies or political parties gaining monopoly power by owning both print and electronic media. On the contrary , both actually face the horrific prospect of commercial extinction. The internet and cellphone provide not just communication but also news and entertainment, and mostly free or dirt-cheap. This has already sent Western TV channels and print media into steep, maybe terminal decline.

Let’s face it, Mr Javadekar, the future of information and broadcasting lies in the internet and cellphones. But neither of these falls under the jurisdiction of your ministry! So, don’t tinker with the old media, simply lift all curbs on them.

Go down in history as the man who prepared India for a future without a Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

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