Jayaøs motivation vs Sun TVøs monopoly

BY ramanujan| IN Regional Media | 31/01/2006
Jayalalithaa’s bill may be the outcome of local political rivalry, but the issue it raises of media monopoly has to be addressed in the larger interest of democracy.




S R Ramanujan




The pre-poll feud between the two Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu reached its crescendo with the passage of the bill to take over the cable television network in Tamil Nadu. Even as the bill was being presented in the Tamil Nadu assembly for discussion by the Jayalalithaa government, the DMK leader M Karunanidhi accompanied by his grand nephew rushed to the Raj Bhavan to prevail upon the Governor not to give his assent. Now that the Bill has been passed by the TN Assembly, it is difficult to say whether the Governor would give his assent straightaway or refer it to the President.


However, Karunanidhi’s fear is genuine. The proposed take-over of cable network was aimed at his family business. Sumangali Cable Vision (SCV), the cable arm of SUN TV network, which enjoys a near-total monopoly over the cable distribution business in Tamil Nadu. There are conflicting views over the legality of Jaya’s move. Nevertheless, keeping aside Karunanidhi’s charge that Jaya’s action was politically motivated and "vindictive", the basic question is whether the state has jurisdiction over a Central subject, especially when the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is supposed to be regulating the cable business.


Jayalalithaa has her own defence. According to her, there are a number of complaints against the cable operators in Tamil Nadu, like "disrupting proper telecast of certain channels thereby preventing the public from viewing them, selective blurring of telecast of certain channels, with threats and coercion often being resorted to by distributors and operators in the process of exhibition of telecasts". All these charges are obviously directed against "Sumangali Cable Vision".


If one goes through the "Letters" column of a Chennai-based national daily, definitely not in the good books of the state government, Jaya’s complaints do not seem to be out of pique. Most of the letters welcomed the government’s move to take over MSOs. Some of the correspondents argued the case of Jayalalithaa. Answering a criticism that the takeover is quite "selective", a correspondent said: "State takeover of any undertaking in public interest is always restricted to major players. In 1969, only 14 leading banks were nationalized to begin with to change the face of banking in India. Nobody, including courts, cried foul for leaving hundreds of smaller banks in private hands".


It is believed that many tail-end cable operators are at the mercy of SCV which controls 90% of the operation in Tamil Nadu. Apart from the stated reasons for the Bill, SCV is reported to be really fleecing small operators, subscribers and preventing competitors from operating in the area. Besides the cable operators’ agony, even some of the channels, without political clout, were squeezed out of business by the stranglehold that the SCV has over the distribution business. The spontaneous response of the eloquent section of the people in the state welcoming the government’s move does endorse Jaya’s stated objective of "public interest" to end monopoly in cable television distribution and to control "unfair trade practices".


While Jaya talks of "public interest", Karunanidhi invokes "press freedom". A question that Karunanidhi cannot answer with an element of credibility while talking about "press freedom" is that why his grand nephew Dayanidhi Maran’s ministry has  refused to give a licence for uplinking for Jaya TV’s news channel for the last two years? Jaya TV is not the solitary case in which Dayanidhi Maran acted with prejudice. Raj TV, Vissa TV, and Star Vijay were his victims. Wherever competition was surfacing for the Sun network in the South, the Maran brothers saw to it that any such enterprise was forced to go out of existence, with their distribution monopoly. So, Karunanidhi’s talk of "press freedom"
sounds hollow.


Whatever the merits or demerits of the Jaya’s attempt to take over the cable trade and of Karunanidhi’s objections which are not without self-interest, the controversy raises a major issue which needs to be debated. That is the issue of  media monopoly. Is there a need to curb monopoly over the media business without violating the spirit of press freedom? There was a time when radio and television were not in the hands of private sector and they enjoyed state monopoly. The state monopoly had its own problems as they became the voice of the government of the day and the party in power. When the liberalization process began in the early nineties with some newspapers trying to have control over television, there was a move to impose a ban on cross media ownership citing prevalence of such restrictions in some of the Western countries. Because the NDA government was not inclined to rub the press barons of the country on the wrong side, the move was given up.


The result is unhindered media monopoly today. The Tamil Nadu controversy has to be viewed in this context. Take the Sun Network. It has its fingers in all the three media - print, television and radio - plus cable distribution and DTH.  It has 13 television channels with a complete monopoly over the Southern states, two daily newspapers, four magazines, four FM stations, a cable distribution network, retailing of set top boxes for the CAS in force in Tamil Nadu, and it is a matter of time before the network begin DTH (direct-to-home) operation as well. The network is also reported to be scouting for established newspapers/magazines in the southern states for a take-over. Media monopoly itself is bad with its mind control and when it is owned by a political dispensation, it becomes all the more dangerous.


 Jaya’s bill may be the outcome of local political rivalry, but the issue it raises of media monopoly has to be addressed in the larger interest of democracy. Press freedom is undoubtedly a fundamental right flowing from Art 19 (1)(a). But, it is not an absolute right or unlimited right. Like any other fundamental rights, there can be reasonable restrictions provided they are not arbitrary. In the present context where most of the major media houses are going for multi-media operations, is it time for us to have a closer look at the cross-media ownership and regulate it so that the monopoly does not end up in regimented thought process. Will it pass the test of "reasonable restrictions" allowed by the Constitution? Or should we have to allow the market forces to regulate this monopoly? A public debate is the need of the hour.


Contact: s_ramanujan9@yahoo.co.in



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