ARE AIR AND DOORDARSHAN TRULY AUTONOMOUS?
Opinion

ARE AIR AND DOORDARSHAN TRULY AUTONOMOUS?

Prof. T K Thomas

Prof. T K Thomas

There were reports last week that Prasar Bharati, the Broadcasting Corporation of India has issued a diktat to All India Radio [AIR] and Doordarshan [DD] “not to talk to media without permission”. Reports also mention that “AIR and DD officials should seek approval from the additional director general [marketing] of the Prasar Bharati Secretariat for any media interaction or press briefing. Approval will also be required for other media -related activities, such as on location shoots, issuing of press releases, or advertisements and hoardings.” While Prasar Bharati CEO, Shashi Shekhar Vempati reportedly defended the move saying that the new orders are meant “to streamline corporate communication” of the national broadcaster, hapless insiders in AIR and DD said to have termed the new move as ‘gag’ orders. Insiders obviously are rather scared to openly air their dissent in a set up in which the directors general of AIR and DD have almost been rendered ineffective.

I consider the alleged “gagging” of AIR and DD by Prasar Bharati as a negation of the long struggle by concerned professionals, political leaders, civil society activists and everyone else who wanted to uphold the freedom of the press / media, bestowed by our constitution. It indeed is an essential pillar of a robust democracy. Didn’t Thomas Carlyle attribute the origin of the term ‘Fourth Estate’ to Edmund Burke who used the phrase in a parliamentary debate in 1787? Thomas Carlyle wrote, ”Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”[‘On Heroes and Hero Worship’]. Carlyle in his “French Revolution” wrote,” A Fourth Estate of Able Editors, springs up, increases and multiplies; irrepressible, incalculable.” Carlyle saw the press as instrumental to the birth and growth of democracy, spreading facts and opinions and sparking revolution against tyranny”. [Sourced from cs.stanford.edu].

The signs of our times are indicative of the reality that only very few newspapers or news portals carried the story about 'Gagging' of AIR and DD. A large number of media organizations avoid anything critical of the government and are namby-pamby if not absolutely one-sided. Or probably various media organizations did not find anything 'news worthy’ as this has been considered a statement of fact known to everyone. Right to issue press releases, talk to the media or decisions on professional matters are meant for autonomous government organizations; haven’t AIR and Doordarshan long lost or surrendered their autonomy? And so, any diktat from Prasar Bharati is normal and natural not worth reporting. I consider veteran BJP leader and member of the NDA government’s Marg Darshak Mandal L K Advani to be the prime mover of the very concept of autonomy for AIR and DD after what happened during the Emergency. He in fact had said that during the dark days of Emergency the press had crawled when asked to bend. The veteran BJP leader was gracious enough to release my book, ” Autonomy for the Electronic Media” in 1990. One wonders how he would react to the latest Prasar Bharati diktat to AIR&DD!

After the submission of the Varghese Committee Report there was a national debate in the 1980s. Seminars and conferences were organized across India for generation of views and public opinion on the proposed bill. At a seminar in Delhi P V Krishnamurthi, veteran broadcaster and the first director general of Doordarshan had cautioned the danger of an elusive autonomy when the corporation comes into vogue. He said, ”Then what is the role of the two Directors General? If you think that, they are men of caliber; if you think that they are men of substance, if you have confidence in those two gentlemen, where is their place? Are they merely going to take orders? Where is their place for their initiative in the governing council?....”

It may however be added that with the emergence of satellite and digital media and hundreds of television news channels and news portals, talking about autonomy for AIR and DD may be considered retrograde and irrelevant. But India’s public broadcasters, with the largest audience share and the largest radio and television network are supposed to be serving public interest by being absolutely impartial and balanced.

AIR was a department of Government of India under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting since 1946  . Successive governments have treated them like their mouth pieces and from the Indira Gandhi era the heightened misuse had started. AIR news till then was matter of fact, devoid of hype and sensationalism. A semblance of balance and objectivity was also maintained.

It is considered important to briefly mention how broadcasting began in India through efforts of radio clubs in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay in the early 1920s. In 1925 the government invited applications to set up broadcasting stations. The first private radio station was set up in Bombay by Indian Broadcasting Company[ IBC] in June, 1926 under an agreement with the government, heralding the dawn of organized broadcasting in India. The IBC was a losing proposition and was closed down and on 1 March 1930. On pubic demand the government took over broadcasting and established the Indian State Broadcasting Service [ISBS] in April 1930. After closing down of ISBS in October 1931, on public demand again, in May 1932 the government decided to continue the service. In March1935 a separate office of the Controller of Broadcasting was created under the Department of Industries and Labour and Lionel Fielden assumed charge as the first Controller of Broadcasting on 30 August 1935.Indian State Broadcasting Service was re-designated All India Radio on 8 June 1936. Besides radio stations run by the princely states of Hyderabad [started in February 1935] and Mysore [started in September 1935] there were nine AIR Stations during the British rule. Following partition, Lahore, Dacca and Peshawar fell in Pakistan and six stations- Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Madras, Lucknow and Tiruchirapally in the Indian Union. AIR had already come under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting {I&B] of the interim government in September 1946 with Sardar Vallabhai Patel as the first I&B Minister.

The issue of autonomy was a matter of debate from the beginning of radio. Starting as a private enterprise in 1926 the government owned broadcasting set-up from 1930. However the first Controller of Broadcasting, Lionel Fielden had problems with the ‘Steel Frame’ of the Government of India. The trouble started when in 1940 Fielden told the government that he would like to make recordings of the speeches of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the new Congress President at the 1940 annual session of the Indian National Congress to be held at Ramgarh [Bihar]. He wanted the excerpts from the speech broadcast later. The government expectedly said no. Fielden did not like this rebuff as he considered it as an interference in his autonomous functioning. It is another matter that he adopted his own indigenous ways of registering his disdain by setting up a demonstration studio in Ramgarh to make AIR’s presence felt and deputed a broadcaster to write an article about the AICC session. This was later published along with photographs of Congress leaders in ‘The Indian Listener’.

It is an undeniable fact that successive governments have misused first AIR and then DD and interfered with their functioning. The saga of misuse in fact began with the election case of Indira Gandhi which led to the declaration of the National Emergency. Almost all opposition leaders were imprisoned. A Censor was in place and no anti government news was allowed to be printed. AIR and fledgling Doordarshan as monopolies were the only source of news on the air which sang praises of the PM and the Emergency.

Emergency was lifted in 1977 and a majority of opposition parties, with divergent ideologies came together and formed the Janata Party. In its manifesto for the 1977 General Elections the new party promised autonomy for AIR and Doordarshan. The gagging and muzzling of the media during the Emergency was indeed a threat to freedom of the press from authoritarian rule. This was the main reason for the inclusion of the issue of autonomy for electronic media in the manifesto of the Janata Party. The Party trounced the Congress and as promised the then Information and Broadcasting Minister L K Advani appointed a committee headed by veteran journalist B G Varghese to go into the question of granting autonomy to AIR and Doordarshan. The Committee promptly submitted the Akash Bharati report but unfortunately the government fell and the report went into cold storage. It took many more years and short-lived governments to finally come out with a Bill to grant autonomy to AIR&DD based on the improvised Prasar Bharati report that was passed unanimously by the Parliament.

Well, the question is whether the creation of Prasar Bharati has really ensured autonomy for AIR and DD as envisaged by L K Advani , B G Varghese and those who fought the infamous Emergency. Many of the victims of Emergency today are part of the present ruling dispensation. It is for the people of India to decide whether AIR and DD are truly autonomous.

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