The need for independence of state-run Prasar Bharti has come under the scanner once again with a major row erupting between the two leading political parties and Doordarshan CEO, Jawahar Sircar. The controversy came to fore after Doordarshan allegedly edited parts of BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi’s interview.
The interview which took place on April 26 was telecast on April 27, reportedly with little promotion. The Times of India quoted unnamed sources saying that ‘considerable time’ was spent editing the interview and as a measure of ‘abundant caution’, the bit about Priyanka Gandhi was left out. Sircar was then quoted denying any knowledge of the interview being edited.
Modi reportedly said that Priyanka Gandhi was like his daughter and he did not consider her a political rival like her mother Sonia Gandhi or her brother Rahul, adding that in Indian culture daughters were spared from attacks.
On April 27, Sircar took to Twitter to assure people that the interview would not be delayed or cancelled despite speculation. However, it was too late by then. At a public rally, Modi openly criticized the government for forcing editing on a news broadcaster even as DD issued a statement saying, “There was no deliberate editing or omission of any portion of the interview. Wherever editing was done was for technical reasons and during post-production. There was no interference by any authority in the entire process. Important portions of the interview were used in all important bulletins of DD News. There was no attempt to downplay the interview ratherit was given wide pre-telecast publicity.”
Worsening the controversy, a day later Sircar issued a letter acknowledging that certain portions of the interview on Doordarshan “were apparently edited” and pointed a finger at Information and Broadcasting Minister, Manish Tewari for failing to grant “operational autonomy” to the public broadcaster that it has been seeking for years. He went on to call DD a polio-stricken child, stating while there is no direct interference, the organization works under the “shadow” of the government. He also claimed he had no control in “selection of news”.
Tewari pleaded ignorance about Sircar’s letter to the Prasar Bharati board. He said, “Prasar Bharati is an autonomous broadcaster and is governed by an act of parliament. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has an arm’s length relationship with the broadcaster. We do not interfere in their news agenda.” But Sircar’s concerns are not new. He has, in the past too, taken on the minister over interference in functioning of Prasar Bharati, pointed out the interference the government can have in the form of transfers, appointments and punitive actions regarding Prasar Bharati officials. Looking at the larger picture, it is evident that Doordarshan is raring to come of age which is why Sircar’s stand needs to be applauded. His timing, in the middle of an election campaign, though is unexpected. But the larger issue is that Sircar, whose relations with Tewari have long taken the appearance of a feud, has successfully highlighted the issue at hand.
While the Prasar Bharati Act does, in concept, grant operational autonomy — Section 33 of the Act undercuts this intention by insisting on the government’s prior approval on critical issues. These pertain to political interference in the functioning of Prasar Bharti, especially programming, editing, influence on editors, and compromised ability of editors and contributors to act independently.
The autonomy was also suggested by the expert committee headed by Sam Pitroda in the report submitted earlier this year. Recommendations for making the board professionally run and enabling autonomy are underpinned by a plan to monetize the broadcaster’s assets — spectrum, land, etc. He has also suggested looking at alternative funding sources including private investment.
Since its inception in the colonial era, the ruling establishment has viewed broadcasting as a tool to serve its political interests and aims. But today, it is not just about who controls or rules the media but also whether we can have bureaucracy decide the path of action for the media. The danger here is that operational autonomy is being construed as one wherein the bureaucrat would have supreme independence to control the resources within Prasar Bharti. This is not only true for Prasar Bharti but any enterprise that could be functioning under the realm of the state.
A public broadcaster must be guided by a heightened understanding of national interest in putting out news and views. Truly autonomous and decentralized public service broadcasting has a vital role to play in promoting dialogue and empowerment, culture and creativity, seeking to forge unity out of diversity. Thus, in this case, Prasar Bharti needs independence from bureaucracy. Even as the national broadcaster, it needs an independent management which is free from control on opinions of the babus. It also needs both financial and creative autonomy. Creative autonomy will be most difficult because it will require a paradigm shift in the culture of the organization where the staff sees itself as content creators and journalists, rather than government employees.
DD has mostly been in the news for wrong reasons and its autonomy is considered a joke in political and media circles. But there are serious considerations that need to be debated before politics settles down to retaining the public broadcaster as a tool for propaganda and patronage for the next party in government.