I&B MINISTRY LAUNCHES FACILITY OF SHARING AIR NEWS WITH PRIVATE FM RADIO BROADCASTERS; WHAT’S REALLY CHANGED?

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India remains one of those few democracies in the world in which news dissemination on radio still remains within the control of a government owned broadcaster, Prasar Bharti Corporation which owns and operates All India Radio.With the unparalleled reach which radio as a medium has in India, such monopoly ensures the government’s control over the dissemination of radio news.

The I& B Ministry recently announced  the launch of the facility of sharing of All India Radio (AIR) News with Private FM Broadcasters. The AIR News can be shared by Private FM Broadcasters free of cost on a trial basis till 31st May 2019 in English as well as in Hindi language.

The initiative has been kept free of cost as it aims to increase awareness amongst the people by keeping them informed, educated and empowered. Private FM Broadcasters wanting to broadcast AIR News would have to firstly register themselves with News Services Division: All India Radio on their website and secondly by accepting the thirteen terms and conditions provided on their website. The Terms and conditions can be viewed here.

The conditions state that the AIR News will have to be carried in totality along with the commercials without any alteration. Also, the due credit shall be given by the Private FM Broadcasters to AIR News. The news shall be broadcasted live or deferred live for not more than a period of 30 minutes, provided where the news is deferred; a preceding announcement of the same shall be made. Also, the Private FM Broadcasters cannot share the News Bulletin with any other channel or person. Private FM Broadcasters will have to make their own arrangement at their own cost for receiving the signals of the news bulletin of AIR and broadcasting them live or recorded over their own channels. During the trial period, Private FM Broadcasters may avoid broadcasting of AIR News in disturbed/border or Naxal areas.

In an era of digitization, the curbs imposed on private FM broadcasters from broadcasting news and current affairs defies logic and reasonableness.

The timeline of where it all started has been well summarized in this petition which was filed by Common Cause vs Union of India seeking a lift on the ban of broadcast of news and current affairs programme by private channels

1927-1947 Sound broadcasting started in India in 1927 with the proliferation of private radio clubs. The operations of All India Radio, as a government organisation mandated to inform, educate and entertain the masses, began formally in 1936. The government control over radio is based on the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 and the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933.
23.07.1977 Terrestrial radio services comprise Amplitude Modulation (AM) radio that uses medium or short wave frequency bands, and Frequency Modulation (FM) that uses VHF frequencies in the 88 MHz to 108 MHz band. AM radio is offered only by AIR, while FM radio which works on line-of-sight principles and can be clearly received within a local area, is offered by both AIR and private channels. AIR began FM broadcasts in Madras on July 23, 1977.
1995 The Hon’ble Supreme Court held in Ministry of Information & Broadcasting Vs Cricket Association of Bengal & Anr that airwaves were public property to be used to promote public good and expressing a plurality of views, opinions and ideas.
1997 TRAI, an independent body to regulate all telecom and communication businesses and recommend terms of licence, monitoring quality, etc of communication service providers set up as per TRAI Act, 1997.
1999 FM radio opened to private players. Bids invited for licences to operate 140 FM stations in 40 cities.
March 2000 29 applicants short-listed for licences to operate 101 FM radio stations. Upon further screening, letters of intent issued to 93 stations. Ultimately, FM licences granted to 16 companies to operate 37 channels.
16.07.2003 The Economic Times carried a story on this issue and highlighted the fact that there is no such restriction on other democratic countries.
24.07.2003 Many licensed FM stations failed to meet the licence fee requirements and demanded their reduction and a change in the licensing network. MI&B constituted the Radio Broadcast Policy Committee headed by Amit Mitra, Secretary General, FICCI, to make recommendations for Phase II of FM licensing, and to study the desirability and implications of modifying the licensing regime of Phase I licences.
August 2004 The Radio Broadcast Policy Committee recommended the constitution of an independent broadcast regulator. The Committee suggested that pending the creation of a Regulator, a non-statutory Committee be set up with Terms of Reference similar to what the Regulator would have. TRAI, which had taken over the regulatory responsibilities for broadcasting, recommended removal of the restrictions on broadcast of news and related programmes.
2006 Second round of allocation of licences concluded. Government issued policy guidelines for setting up community radio stations.
2007 Draft Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2007, containing provisions for an independent broadcast regulator, restrictions on cross-media ownership, and new technologies, formulated.
24.09.2008 MI&B issued policy guidelines on expansion of FM radio broadcasting services- Phase II– through private agencies, prohibiting broadcast of news and current affairs programs.
28.11.2008 For Private FM Radio Broadcasting Phase III, TRAI recommended that FM broadcasters may only be permitted to broadcast news, taking content from AIR, Doordarshan, authorized TV news channels, United News of India, Press Trust of India and any other authorized news agency without any substantive change in the content.
25.07.2011 Under Phase III policy guidelines for FM, a minor modification made to allow broadcast of FM radio news bulletins of AIR without any addition or modification.
10.02.2013 During the 3rd National Community Radio Sammelan, Secretary, MI&B stated that community radio stations would not be allowed to broadcast news for some time to come. As a stop-gap measure, they could be permitted to re-transmit unedited AIR news.

 

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in 2013 by Common Cause for quashing the provisions of the Policy Guidelines and of the Grant of Permission Agreements framed by the Government which prohibit private FM Radio and Community Radio stations from broadcasting their own news and current affairs programmes on the same footing as television and print media. The Government had issued separate policy guidelines for community radio and FM radio, imposing unreasonable restrictions on the broadcast of news and current affairs programmes by them.

The Government had contended that it was not possible to grant Private FM Broadcasters permission to carry out news as several anti-national radical elements within the country and also abroad can misuse it for propagating their own agenda. Ministry of Home Affairs contended that the Community Radio Service operators and Private FM Operators may not be allowed to broadcast news and current affairs programmes. Broadcast of news by these stations/ channels may pose a possible security risk as there is no mechanism to monitor the contents of these news bulletins of such stations.

The Supreme Court vide order dated Feb 14, 2017 observed that the Union of India should consider extending the content of news and current affairs for community radio stations and F.M. Radio Stations, at least to include such news and current affairs, as are already in public domain, namely, such news and current affairs, which are broadcasted, not only by the AIR, but also by the licensed operators in the print and electronic media. This was done as a result of the counter-affidavit filed by the Union of India which highlighted the gradual progress of the policy guidelines in context of news broadcast by private radio channels. The counter-affidavit contended that the revised guidelines permitted community and F.M radio stations to broadcast news and current affairs sourced exclusively from the All India Radio, in its original form or translated into a local language/dialect.  The writ petition was however dismissed on April 12, 2018 for default of appearance on behalf of the petitioner.

Phase III – Policy Guidelines of FM Radio Services dated 25.07.2011 provided that

11.1 The permission Holder will be permitted to carry the news bulletins of All India Radio in exactly same format (unaltered) on such terms and conditions as may be mutually agreed with Prasar Bharati, No other news and current affairs programs are permitted under the Policy (Phase-III)

11.2 The broadcast pertaining to the following categories will be treated as non-news and current affairs broadcast and will therefore be permissible:

(a) Information pertaining to sporting events excluding live coverage.

However live commentaries of sporting events of local nature may be permissible;

(b) Information pertaining to Traffic and Weather;

(c) Information pertaining to and coverage of cultural events, festivals;

(d) Coverage of topics pertaining to examinations, results, admissions, career counseling;

(e) Availability of employment opportunities;

(f) Public announcements pertaining to civic amenities like electricity, water supply, natural calamities, health alerts etc. as provided by the local administration;

(g) Such other categories not permitted at present, that may subsequently be specifically permitted by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting from time to time.”

So if the Policy Guidelines already permitted unaltered AIR news to be carried out then what has changed now?

Other than a few minor changes in relation to credits to be given to AIR and mandatory broadcasting of commercials along with the news bulletin in toto, the major change seems to be that  the sharing of AIR News has been made free of cost until 31st May 2019. Under the old regime of Phase III, Private FM Operators would have to pay license fee for the carriage of news bulletin which had to be paid in advance on a quarterly basis.

It is unfortunate that the Government has not taken into consideration the recommendation of the Supreme Court in extending the content of news and current affairs for community radio stations and FM radio stations at least to include such news and current affairs, as are already in public domain, namely, such news and current affairs, which are broadcasted, not only by the AIR, but also by the licensed operators in the print and electronic media.

The Common Cause petition had highlighted none of USA, Spain, Italy, France, Greece or Australia’s radio stations are barred from  airing news and related content. In fact, many stations are solely news channels, including specialised ones for community radio. Further, countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangaldesh and even Pakistan are ahead of India in allowing news content to be broadcast on the private channels.

Making AIR news available on private FM channels free of cost only until 31st May, 2019 looks more like an election agenda than a step towards extending the dissemination of news through one of the most popular mediums of mass communication.

Image source:here