Swadeshi, moral media on the cards?

BY sevanti ninan| IN Opinion | 01/05/2014
The party will reverse its own earlier policy initiatives on foreign investment, restrict media ownership and push for cross media restrictions.
SEVANTI NINAN on the BJP’s media policy

Sevanti Ninan

The Bharatiya Janata Party has enunciated a very clear media policy, should it come to power, which amazingly nobody is talking about. 

The media industry should certainly take note. If the party means business, some drastic proposals are on the cards. It will reverse its own earlier policy initiatives on foreign investment, it will push for cross media restrictions, and attempt yet again, to give the country an independent media regulator. It also intends to take Prasar Bharati out of government control and make it directly accountable to Parliament. 

The frenetic media obsession with the BJP's Hindu nationalism has led us to ignore other kinds of policy nationalism it has on its agenda. Hardly any attention is being paid to the about turn the party has done on foreign investment in media. Its current position, spelt out in a document on its website called "Our policy on Media, Cinema and Arts", is an amazing list of nationalistic postures which seek to overturn some of the opening up the last BJP government did in 1999-2004. 

Apart from the relatively minor matter of disallowing someone like Sonia Gandhi to own media in the country (only 'natural-born Indians' will be permitted to own media) it seeks to reverse the current policy of permitting FDI (foreign direct investment) in the print media, and shrink the current FDI permitted in electronic non news media from 100 per cent to 20 per cent. It does not distinguish between news and entertainment media while discussing FDI. 

Permitting 26 per cent FDI in the print news media was something Sushma Swaraj helped push through when she was minister for information and broadcasting in 2002. Technical and medical publications were allowed a higher FDI of 74 per cent. This was subsequently enhanced to 100 per cent by a later government. This decision effectively reversed the 1955 Cabinet resolution prohibiting any foreign investment in print media. It was pushed through despite strong lobbying against it by the Times Group. 

Three years later the United Progressive Alliance left the 26 per cent cap intact but also permitted foreign institutional investors to invest in the print media. The syndication limit for foreign content was increased to 20%. The same government also allowed publication of facsimile editions of foreign newspapers and journals in India, although such publications remain barred from access to Indian content or advertisements. The trend in the last ten years has been one of gradual opening up, following up on policy initiatives Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley took as information and broadcasting ministers. Now the party policy says FDI in print media will not be permitted. It is hard to imagine the sharp reversal that is being contemplated. 

The first tentative opening up of community radio, albeit by giving licences only to educational institutions, was done by Swaraj. And allowing the private sector into radio, something disallowed by the Telegraph Act of 1885, was Jaitley's gift to media consumers. Both had stopped short when it came to news on either community or FM radio. That is the step one was hoping a new government would take. A big confident democracy striding forward, as Mr Modi envisions it, should surely allow its people to listen to independently produced news on radio? 

Instead, the tenor of the BJP's current spelt out policy has strong moral and swadeshi overtones, emphasizing the need to have a "normative moral code" for the media. 

There is also this bit: "On the use of editorial matter from outside in electronic media, the BJP would ensue that the safeguards present in Article 19 (2) of the Constitution are fully implemented to balance freedoms and public interest.” Meaning reasonable restrictions on which kinds of programming? Someone needs to tell the media industry. 

Once you get away from its swadeshi and moralising instincts there are positive indicators too of what one might expect. Some indication, for instance, that a BJP majority government if elected would move to do something about expensive non-starter than Prasar Bharati has become. The policy talks of improving the provisions of the Prasar Bharati Act to let the broadcaster organise an effective public broadcasting system, which would be accountable to Parliament but free from Government control. 

Then there is an expressed intention of exploring and imposing "appropriate cross-media and cross-platform restrictions" The regulator (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) is already up against stiff opposition on this one. Let's see if the BJP backs it when in power.  

The policy statement makes a commitment on establishing an independent autonomous public authority which will regulate broadcasting and set up a system to address complaints. Then it makes noises about protecting the "nascent Indian industry vis-a-vis a highly developed foreign-based broadcasting industry," and talks about its belief that a healthy polity and democracy cannot survive without the support of an "extra-political moral order". And how does an increasingly big corporate-and-politician-owned media even begin to play this role?  

Reprinted from Mint May 1, 2014

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