NEW DELHI: The information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry has asked regulator Trai for a review of the policy which disallows government ownership of television channels. This letter to the regulator is seen as a precursor to the Centre launching a TV channel of its own.
(I&B ministry was looking to recast Prasar Bharati as a financially autonomous public service broadcaster.)
On November 30, I&B secretary Uday Kumar Varma wrote to Trai chairman Rahul Khullar asking him "to kindly provide your recommendations as to whether the following may be allowed" in broadcasting: central and state government ministries and departments, state-owned companies, undertakings and joint ventures.
Varma cited the instances of the governments of Gujarat, Punjab, and the Union HRD ministry seeking permission to operate and distribute their TV channels which the I&B ministry has turned down because the current policy doesn't allow government presence in broadcasting.
Sources in the ministry said Doordarshan was allowed because it was ostensibly run by an autonomous body, Prasar Bharati. They also said that it was a question of time before Prasar Bharati is likely to be asked to raise and manage its own finances and that would automatically lead to the public broadcaster asserting its autonomy.
It's in this context that the government's letter seeking Trai's views on government presence in broadcasting acquires significance. Incidentally, Doordarshan enjoys 92% coverage of the country through its terrestrial network with a viewership of about 2.5 crore people.
Not just TV channels, the government is also keen on having a presence in print and radio too. There is urgency to the move in view of elections in 2014 when the government having its own media would be undoubtedly helpful.
While the Punjab government sought permission for its own TV channel, the Gujarat government and HRD ministry sought the I&B ministry's nod to set up educational channels on their own DTH platforms.
Sources said that the I&B ministry was looking to recast Prasar Bharati as a financially autonomous public service broadcaster like the BBC with independent sources of funding like licence fees, commercial programming and ads.
At present 90% of the ministry's fund is spent on funding Prasar Bharati's operations. I&B minister Manish Tewari is said to have discussed the issue with senior memeber of the government. "Why should there be a veil of hypocrisy in running one's own channel or paper? If there are 800 TV channels, allowing 30 more will only be a drop in the ocean. If there are 3,000 radio stations, there can be space for 30 more, and the same is true for papers," the sources said.