Media and foreign money

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 08/05/2011
What sense do FCRA restrictions for not for profit media make when commercial media houses are permitted varying degrees of foreign direct investment? Why did the law passed last week not take the changed FDI scenario into account,
Does foreign money in media subvert the national interest? Does it help to influence the way Indians think? If so, why is foreign direct investment in media allowed, 26 per cent in print and television news media, 100 per cent in TV entertainment media, and   in scientific journals?
On May 1, 2011 a revised version of the law which governs the receipt of foreign money by organizations in India, came into effect. The original Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act of 1976 had been passed during the Emergency. The new one retains many of the original provisions and tightens some further to try and ensure that organizations that do not comply with the law are brought to book. Two professional categories  that it particularly targets, besides non governmental organizations, are political parties, and the media. It debars registered political parties and registered newspapers and their correspondents and columnists, etc. from receiving foreign funds.
 The revised law affects only the not-for-profit media since they will continue to require registration with the Home Ministry, if they are set up as trusts or registered societies. Business and companies do not attract a the Home Ministry’s gaze. Not-for-profit media-related ventures   receive money from donor organizations to do work which is not commercially viable. What falls in this category? Media research supported  watchdog activities  like the Hoot, organizations of media professionals set up to debate professional issues, bodies like the Press Institute of India which used to train journalists, bodies which work on issues of press freedom, organizations which promote community radio, and so on.
While drafting the new law the Government failed to exclude media from its purview, in light of the FDI changes which have taken place.
The bodies that do such work are registered as trusts or societies which fall under the purview of the FCRA law. Associations of journalists that  are not registered, are not permitted to receive foreign grants either.  In other words, those who do non- commercial, professionalism-enhancing  media activities that Indian donors do not support, are dogged by FCRA requirements. Indian businesses and trusts do not support civil society media activities because they  do not fall in the realm of  conventional development activities which the country is perceived to sorely need. Education, health, skills training, women’s welfare,  and such like.
What precisely does the recently passed Act say?  Section 3, 1 says:
 3.(1) No foreign contribution shall be accepted by any—
(a) candidate for election;
(b) correspondent, columnist, cartoonist, editor, owner, printer or publisher of a registered newspaper;
In section 2, clause q defines a registered newspaper thus:
 (q“registerednewspapermeansanewspaperregisteredunderthePressand RegistrationofBooksAct,1867 (25 of 1867).
Here is why this is more than mildly silly. Some years back a joint secretary of the GOI patiently explained to us that the idea was that Indians should not be influenced by media which foreign interests were funding . But in 2002, more than two and a half decades after the original FCRA law was passed, the Government of India permitted foreign direct investment in the Indian media.
Some of the country’s biggest newspapers including the Hindustan Times, Hindustan, and Dainik Jagran have received foreign investments since. They do not influence the way Indians think? What about all the global entertainment media in this country—the music channels, movie channels, shopping channels and what not? All allowed 100 percent foreign direct investment. Don’t they influence the way Indian’s think?   
FDI in media was brought in by the Bharatiya Janata Party government which loves to invoke nationalism and is particularly obsessed with foreigners. Why did they do so? Because they could see that given how much foreign-owned media the Indian public was now consuming, barring Indian media owners from getting foreign partners made no sense. Whats more, the law currently governing the press allows a foreign citizen to be editor of an Indian newspaper, unless it is a publication which has foreign direct investment.
Thanks to the changed FDI laws a registered newspaper can receive foreign money as foreign direct investment if it is registered as a business. It cannot if it is registered as a cooperative, a trust,  or as a not-for-profit. It all adds up to rather mindless discrimination against non commercial media. Should not FCRA have ceased to apply to such organizations in light of the FDI rule changes?
Finally, there are registered and unregistered media organizations currently operating with foreign grants which are enterprising and dodge cumbersome registration requirements which can take years to materialize. They are doubtless confident that their powerful political contacts will come to their rescue if there is a problem.
So why penalize the poor sods who are honest enough to play by the rules? Thanks to the revised Act they will now have to apply afresh for registration every five years. And as any organization that has gone through the Home ministry’s FCRA grind in recent years knows, dealing with the FCRA Division of the GOI is no picnic. A more opaque organization will be hard to find.
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