Prasar Bharati: assault on autonomy

BY verghese| IN Media Freedom | 26/08/2003
The dismissal of the director general of Doordarshan was arbitrary and mala fide and inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the Prasar Bharati Act.

                            Reprinted from the Indian Express, August  20, 2003






 Prasar Bharati celebrated a proud moment in its history earlier this month, the 60th anniversary of Broadcasting House in Delhi. Many evoked Gandhiji`s inspiring words in praise of openness and pluralism inscribed over its portal and hoped for a new beginning of creativity, excellence, credibility and autonomy as the nation`s public service broadcaster. 

  Only days later, the axe fell. Without reference to the Board that appointed him, or even Prasar Bharati`s Chairman or Chief Executive Officer, or anything in writing, the Government surreptitiously informed the Director General Doordarshan that he was being removed mid-term as he no longer enjoyed the confidence of the Minister of Information and Broadcasting/Government. 

  No reason was assigned nor any grounds cited even later in communications with the Chairman and CEO. The action was arbitrary and mala fide and inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the Prasar Bharati Act. Whether the Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister were previously or subsequently consulted is immaterial. The DG, an honourable, upright and competent official, enjoyed the confidence of the PB Board to whom he is responsible. He will now go as soon as formal orders are passed  - which could well await the adjournment of Parliament so as to minimize the stink.

 Prasar Bharati has suffered a gratuitous body blow as a national public service institution  for collateral reasons that may have more to do with ego or petty political or electoral gain through trying to ensure a pliant trumpet. Its credibility and autonomy - such as it was in the face of many inroads - will be grievously undermined both within the organization and in the public eye. There is already no DG AIR and now there will be no DG DD. The CEO will be required to man all these posts as also that of Director Personnel, whose selection has not been made for six years. Virtually all personnel and finances still remain under Government control.

  Ex-post facto justification may now be offered. This would be dishonest and is unlikely to convince anybody. It is a specious argument that the outgoing DG DD is an IAS office on deputation who did not resign from his cadre and that his services are therefore at the disposal of the Government. The PB Rules framed by the Government under the Act stipulate that the two DGs, who are ex officio Members of the Board, shall be selected from among civil servants. Only in the event of no suitable incumbent  being found may the Board go outside that circle with prior official permission.

  In the instant case, the outgoing DG DD was sounded out by the Government and

persuaded to give up a prestigious posting and offer his candidature on a three year deputation. He did so, and was selected by the PB Board from a large field of candidates. It cannot now be argued that he can be plucked out of his selected appointment capriciously, at the whim and fancy of his cadre controlling authority - and that to without grounds or for some larger, stated national purpose. The Act vests the Government with reserve powers to issue directions to the PB in writing but only in the interests of sovereignty, public order, etc, none of which apply here. It has no innate power to transfer personnel. If it did so on earlier occasion, it was because each of these incumbents was appointed ad interim on an emergency basis because of the inability to make a statutory appointment through prescribed procedures.

  To plead that the DG and other PB employees are paid by the "Government" and therefore remain government servants and subject to its will is frivolous. The salaries of all public (and civil) servants, including Ministers and Judges are defrayed from the national exchequer through established parliamentary processes. Governance cannot be a matter of whim and fancy. We take pride in and must uphold the fact that ours is a government of laws and not of men. 

  The issue raised by this episode is more institutional than individual. That focus must not be lost. Over and beyond that, it is the freedom of speech and expression of the common citizen that is at stake. This is not a proprietorial right that goes with any imagined official ownership of PB. The Supreme Court`s airwaves judgement of 1995 spelt out the law in the broadcast domain and while private channels were permitted to go on the air, AIR and DD were later brought together under PB as a public service broadcaster. PB is accountable to Parliament through its budget and annual report through the I&B Ministry. The Central Government is only one part of the many diverse and plural "publics" that PB serves and cannot statutorily or morally seek to reduce PB to His Master`s Voice.

  At the same time, PB needs to put its own house in order. Autonomy is not given as much as grasped. It has to get its priorities right in accordance with its Charter as laid down in Section 12 of the Act. Its programming, including news and current affairs, must uphold plurality and diversity and air contrasting voices, certainly giving the Government its due. It must devolve more autonomy on its regional and local kendras, emphasise local, community and instructional broadcasting as a means of grassroots articulation and empowerment of the voiceless and underprivileged. It has to cater to the citizen and not merely the consumer or those in power.

  The PB Board is cast as a trustee of the freedom of speech and expression of the national collective and the conscience of public service broadcasting. It must build a close interface with its listeners and viewers including all levels of government - its many "publics". Such traditions are not established in a day. There have been the inevitable ups and downs. The latest Government diktat marks a slide down a snake. But the game is not over and there are ladders to climb. Good sense and wisdom must be encouraged to prevail. The ideal of public service broadcasting in the Indian context is too valuable a prize to be abandoned to the whims of small men and the idiosyncrasies of the moment.  But wake up to the challenge. It is your freedom that is at stake. Let none take it away. 
 (The author is a Member of the Prasar Bharati Board but has contributed this in his personal capacity).






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