Public broadcasting in India has never been free. Whichever party has been in power – left, right or centre – it has wanted Akashvani or Doordarshan to serve its propaganda purposes. People who work in these organisations call themselves ‘media’ persons; but in reality, they are government servants. Their salaries come from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, and they follow government instructions. For them, freedom of the media is an illusion.
There was pressure from various quarters in different periods to make the public broadcasting system ‘autonomous’. There were agitations within the organisations to make it ‘free’ as well as from various media bodies and finally, the government did create the Prasar Bharati – an autono-mous body – to run the two organisations. But a large number of ‘journalists’ within the organisations, did not want to let go the security of a government salary. Hence, the purse strings remained with the government, and along with it, the power to run the show from behind, through bureaucratic instructions. The Prasar Bharati Act on one hand has sections 13, 14, 15, which allow the public broadcasting system to work freely under a broadcasting council constituted by members of parliament; but on the other hand it has sections 32 and 33 which make it mandatory for the organisation to follow the ministry’s instructions for all major decisions. These contradictions were never settled, whether willfully or for oversight.
A number of committees were made before and after the formation of the Prasar Bharati to discuss how the public broadcasting system should be run. Almost everyone suggested that it should be allowed to run freely without the government interference. The system was built up on the lines of the BBC but at no point could the authorities introduce the ‘fine balance’ which the British Broadcasting Corporation maintains with the British government. It is not that the BBC and the government never had conflicts; it was always settled amicably with both maintaining their sanctity of operations. The government respected the ‘freedom’ of an organisation like the BBC.
The BBC maintains its quality of production; and earns its own living. The government does provide funds for the BBC, but the organisation is not wholly dependent on the government for its finances. There is a public contribution to the BBC’s finances. The government hardly interferes or pulls the purse strings to get its work done.
But the scene in India is quite murky. The I&B Minister has an ego clash with the Chairman of the Prasar Bharati and the funds for the salary of the ‘employees’ are stopped. The Prasar Bharati never tried to develop the quality (of say the BBC) to be able sell its product and earn its own living. Besides the Minister has the bureaucrats lobby to back her up. The chair of the Prasar Bharati is traditionally a coveted position of a retired IAS officer and the bureaucrats do not like a professional to run it. The government chose a professional this time ousting a retired officer.
The wheeling-dealing that usually goes on with the government media has never done any good either to the organisations or to the people, whom they are ultimately supposed to serve. The only hope may be that the minister and the chairman of the Prasar Bharati belong to the same political party and some sense will prevail in the high command to stop them from fighting an ugly battle in public.
A permanent solution could come through a revision of the anomalies in the Prasar Bharati Act, giving them the freedom to produce quality material that sells and the security of a government salary withdrawn to make the ‘employees’ true journalists. Perhaps that would be asking too much in an Indian system.