A short-lived experiment

Published : Apr 25, 1998 00:00 IST

By moving to replace the existing Prasar Bharati Board, the Bharatiya Janata Party Government is paving the way for the destruction of Prasar Bharati's functional autonomy.

THE media policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I) are not unlike George Orwell's pigs and men: it is increasingly difficult to tell which is which. What is, however, clear is that India's first experiment with autonomous public service broadcasting is likely to end by May. One of the major decisions taken by the BJP Government soon after it came to power was to allow the Prasar Bharati Ordinance issued by the United Front Government in October 1997 to lapse.

Since 1979, successive Congress(I) governments earnestly discussed the issue of autonomous public service broadcasting and submitted proposals for legislative scrutiny, but never acted on them. Today, the BJP, which was party to the initial moves, appears to be following in the Congress(I)'s footsteps, as a result of which genuine autonomous broadcasting may continue to remain as distant a prospect as ever.

Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Sushma Swaraj, who spent most of her 13-day term in office in 1996 (when she held the same portfolio) advising women news readers on Doordarshan about proper attire, has made no bones about her objections to Prasar Bharati. Her principal objection is reported to be over the composition of the Board that controls it. Columnist Nikhil Chakravartty, historian Romila Thapar and Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav are all broadly affiliated with the Left. B.G. Verghese, who headed the committee that paved the way for the tabling of the first Prasar Bharati Act in Parliament in May 1979, is no friend of the BJP either, while Abid Hussain is perceived as being close to the Congress(I), particularly Sonia Gandhi.

When the BJP charged the broadcaster with having an express anti-BJP bias, the Prasar Bharati Board's executive member, S.S. Gill, evidently went some way to address the charge.

When complaints were made about excessive coverage being given to Sonia Gandhi on Doordarshan, programmes such as 'India Decides' produced by a private television channel, in which anchors openly proclaimed their Hindutva sympathies, were aired on Doordarshan's Metro channel. Gill responded to the BJP's allegations of bias by producing detailed figures on comparative air time given to Sonia Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee. However, Gill in particular, and the Prasar Bharati Board in general, made it clear that they disliked the use of television as a medium for religious and political propaganda, and shot down proposals for new mythological programmes of the kind that many people believe created a climate for the BJP to grow in the 1980s. In addition, decisions about news programming became increasingly professional.

EVEN if the Prasar Bharati Board is presumed to have a political or ideological thrust as opposed to bias, its removal on that ground alone is indefensible. Clause 7(1) of the Prasar Bharati Act of 1990, as well as the amended version that was brought into force through the 1997 Ordinance, protects the Board from executive interference. The Board members, except those who hold positions ex-officio, can be removed from office only by the President of India "after the Supreme Court, on a reference made to it by the President has, on inquiry held in accordance with such procedure as the Supreme Court may by rules provide, reported that the Chairman or other such member, as the case may be, ought on such ground be removed." This clause was incorporated since it was felt that successive governments could attack the Boards constituted by their predecessors for their ideological positions.

By moving to replace the Board, the BJP has paved the way for the destruction of Prasar Bharati's functional autonomy, although it is within its rights to allow the Ordinance to lapse. Should the incoming Board be fundamentally different in character from the present one, as it is almost certain to be, each subsequent government is likely to follow the BJP's example and seek to legitimise its efforts to restructure the Board. If the fact that the Minister for Information and Broadcasting in the United Front Government, S. Jaipal Reddy, brought in Prasar Bharati through an Ordinance, rather than an Act of Parliament, is used to justify the BJP's interference now, such technical reasons could be cited by other governments in the future. The outcome of the precedent set by Sushma Swaraj is only too clear: the autonomy promised in Clause 7(1) will have an all-too-short life span.

YET, in at least some senses, Jaipal Reddy's actions paved the way for the BJP's actions. The amendments which Jaipal Reddy chose to bring to the Prasar Bharati Bill of 1990 that had been enacted with the BJP's support, ranged from the mildly controversial to the wholly incomprehensible. Provisions mandating that the executive member of the Board retire at 62, or earlier if he or she had completed six years in office, were waived. It was believed that the intended beneficiary of this amendment was Gill, who is eight years over the age limit prescribed in the Act. Provisions were also incorporated in the Ordinance for the payment of honorariums, a move that was interpreted as being aimed at, among others, Nikhil Chakravartty.

Some of Jaipal Reddy's other amendments were of a different nature. Signal among these was the move to end the parliamentary accountability of Prasar Bharati, a decision that was arrived at with little discussion, which had enraged both the Left and the Right and subverted the consensus on which the 1990 Act rested.

The amendments made by Jaipal Reddy fell into two broad categories. He claimed that the first set of amendments sought to increase the autonomy of the Prasar Bharati Board, while the second set broadly sought to reconcile the Prasar Bharati Act with the pending legislation on private broadcasting, the Broadcasting Bill of 1997. This set of amendments sought to replace the Broadcasting Council provided for in the 1990 Act with a Broadcasting Authority of India that would govern private broadcasters when the Broadcasting Bill is enacted.

However, both sets of amendments, although well-intentioned, emerged from a lack of understanding of the raison d'etre of Prasar Bharati's mandate. This is spelt out in detail in Clause 12 of the Act. The Corporation's primary duty, the clause states, is to "organise and conduct public broadcasting services to inform, educate and entertain the public." Prasar Bharati was thus meant to be distinct from a commercial broadcaster, with public service forming its core ideology.

Clause 12(2) of the Act defined public service broadcasting. Apart from "safeguarding the citizen's right to be informed freely, truthfully and objectively on all matters of public interest," Prasar Bharati would have to pay "special attention" to areas and fields that commercial broadcasters ignore, including education, agriculture, rural development, health and family welfare. The Corporation would also have to meet the needs of regional audiences, minorities and tribal people. The Act gave Prasar Bharati an activist agenda, mandating that it "promote social justice" and combat "the evils of untouchability", work for "safeguarding the rights of the working classes", and stimulate a "national consciousness on the status and problems of women".

Although Jaipal Reddy retained these commitments, he did away with the regulatory apparatus that would have ensured the enforcement of this agenda. That regulatory mechanism stemmed from Clause 13(1), which provided for the creation of a 22-member parliamentary committee to "oversee that the Corporation discharges its functions" in accordance with Clause 12. According to Jaipal Reddy, the formation of the standing committees of Parliament after 1990, including the one that watches over the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, made Clause 13(1) redundant. However, this claim was misleading, since the parliamentary standing committee attached to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has no powers to oversee the functioning of Prasar Bharati. As such, the Prasar Bharati Corporation, operating with the help of public funds and with a legal mandate to serve the public, would not be accountable to any public body. This was a matter of particular concern since the bureaucrats of the Ministry are unlikely to pay attention to their public service obligations.

WHAT the BJP does with Prasar Bharati in the weeks to come remains to be seen. There is a possibility of Sushma Swaraj's professed commitment to restore Clause 13(1) and a parliamentary regulatory mechanism falling by the wayside. The fact that a 13 per cent decline has occurred in Doordarshan's revenue for the year 1997-98 is being used to argue that Prasar Bharati should minimise its public service commitments and focus on making money. However, this suggestion is invalid for two reasons. First, Doordarshan earned a higher revenue in 1996-97 compared to 1997-98 because the revenue from several advertising events, including the World Cup cricket event, came in a single financial year. Secondly, the purpose of public service broadcasting is not to increase revenue, but to provide a service.

More critical than the BJP's handling of Clause 13(1) will be the party's choice of nominees for a new Prasar Bharati Board, if and when the Government chooses to push through the Act. The amendments that it may introduce to the 1990 Act will also be watched carefully.

THE need for an autonomous public service broadcasting system in India is an acute one. The proliferation of commercial television stations has, contrary to claims made by advocates of a free market, done little to generate content diversity in order to meet the needs of different audiences. As French media personality Bernard Pivot recently told the International Herald Tribune, television has increasingly come to resemble a "tap of tepid water - you take a little, you wash your hands and then you go to bed." According to him, television should "exalt you, surprise you, irritate."

If Prasar Bharati had been allowed to grow and meet its commitments, it may have given Indian broadcasting its much-needed substance and character. However, at this juncture - just a few months short of the 20th anniversary of the tabling of the first Prasar Bharati Act in Parliament - its future continues to hang in the balance.

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