Modi’s Idea of “Professional Freedom”: The government increases its hold over Prasar Bharati, India’s Largest Public Broadcaster

26 June, 2015

On 3 May last year, as the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day, and there were 13 days left for the general election that brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power, Narendra Modi, then the party’s prime ministerial candidate, tweeted:

Modi’s tweet referred to an interview he had sat for that had been conducted by Doordarshan—an autonomous public service broadcaster founded by the Indian central government in 1959—at Gandhinagar in Gujarat on 26 April 2014. The BJP alleged that the interview had been edited before it was aired and that portions had been removed. This happened, the party claimed, because of what Modi had said regarding his friendship with Ahmed Patel—political secretary to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi—and his comments on Sonia Gandhi’s daughter, Priyanka Gandhi. The ensuing uproar over these accusations led to a tussle between Prasar Bharati—the public broadcaster that administers the All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan—and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), over the ministry’s interference in the news divisions of both AIR and Doordarshan.

It was amidst this chaos that Modi had taken recourse to Twitter on 3 May. In a three-part series that highlighted his concern for the autonomy of the press, he delivered this parting shot:

More than a year has passed since that tweet, and 40 years since the Emergency was first declared, but the freedom of expression under Modi’s regime does not appear to be faring any better. Last month, on 14 May 2015, the News Service Division of AIR issued an order that was signed by Narendra Kaushal, Director (North Region) regarding the “completion of one year of NDA (National Democratic Alliance) Government in office.” The order stated that AIR’s Regional News Units (RNUs) would contribute “success stories” related to the policies and initiatives of the current dispensation. It further directed that these must be incorporated into daily bulletins from 15 to 31 May 2015. What made the order and the enclosed programming schedule particularly jarring was the precision with which they dictated news content for AIR in matters of subject, duration, broadcasting time and location.

Over the course of two weeks, I attempted to contact Kaushal repeatedly. However, each time I called his office, his secretary told me that he was either out of station, in a meeting or away. The emails I sent were not responded to, and he stopped taking my calls on his personal phone after I brought up the order. Thereafter, every call I made to his number would peter out into a succession of “Hellos,” presumably to signify a bad connection, before getting disconnected.

I sent Jawhar Sircar, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Prasar Bharati, my queries regarding the order through an email on 4 June. In response, he marked me on a mail addressed to Fayyaz Sheheryar, the director-general of AIR, that stated, “I am still waiting for the order said to have been issued by Narendra Kaushal on which I spoke to you about.” On 11 June, I received another email from Sircar that stated, “Prasar Bharati did not issue any such order on 14th (May). I think somebody in the News Division of AIR did. About the other questions, I would not like to comment right now.”

Prasar Bharati was set up as a statutory autonomous body to manage Doordarshan and AIR in 1997, by virtue of the Prasar Bharati Act, 1990. It was established to ensure that both broadcasters be accorded the editorial freedom denied to them as media units of the MIB. The act, according to an article by Mrinal Pande, former chairperson of Prasar Bharati, was “hastily crafted” and responsible for birthing “a malnourished creature with a severe bipolar disorder,” such that “over the past 17 years, an almost Stalinist system has continued to run it (Prasar Bharati) from the back seat.”

In her article, Pande added that the corporation had been rendered weak by the non-compliance of two requirements, the transfer of assets from the ministry to the organisation and the creation of a recruitment board to ensure that the employees of Prasar Bharati would not be accountable to the government. Furthermore, she noted, an order in 2002 from the MIB under the Vajpayee-led NDA government concluded that a “nationally owned autonomous broadcasting organisation” must also be, “under the Centre,” thereby ensuring that Prasar Bharati would be guided by and answerable to the central government.

When I wrote to Pande in an email in mid-June, she brought my attention to Chapter 4, Section 32, of the Prasar Bharati Act that bears the rubric “Power to make rules.” This section, as things stand, gives the central government complete authority over Prasar Bharati cadres, salaries, resources, rules and notifications. While Pande refused to comment on the present day functioning of Prasar Bharati, she did note that out of the six nominated members of the Board, only two remain from her tenure between 2010 and 2014: Professor SK Barua, the tenth director of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, and Muzaffar Ali, a filmmaker. The rest of the posts “have been vacant essentially from the time the members stepped down after the incumbent government assumed office,” Barua told me in her email on 20 June. Recently, as part of the government’s intent of “remodeling of Doordarshan,” it released four names under consideration for these posts: Ashok Tandon, former media advisor to Atal Bihari Vajpayee; Anup Jalota, a singer who is a member of the BJP; journalist Minhaz Merchant and Bollywood actress Kajol.

In October 2014, Surya Prakash, a former editor with Zee News and a consulting editor with the Pioneer, succeeded Mrinal Pande as the chairperson of Prasar Bharati after the position was left vacant for nearly six months. Prakash is a distinguished fellow with the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), a Delhi-based think tank affiliated to the Vivekananda Kendra, which is in turn connected to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The VIF was founded in 2009 by Ajit Doval, the current national security adviser to the prime minister. Nripendra Misra and Pravas Kumar Mishra, who were both members of the VIF executive council, are now serving with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) as principal secretary and additional principal secretary, respectively.

Prakash remained unavailable for comment. On 9 June, I received an email from his personal secretary that stated, “Chairman, Prasar Bharati is very busy next couple of months. You are requested please contact after 2-3 months.” This week, according to a report in The Economic Times, Prakash received a hike from the government that could reportedly mean that he would now be able to take around Rs 1 lakh in salary as the chairman of Prasar Bharati. Officials from the government indicated in the report that Prakash would now get paid for attending office, and not just meetings, as it would help him exercise more control over the organisation.

On 29 May this year, Indian Information Service (IIS) officer Veena Jain, the former additional director-general of AIR, was elevated to the position of director-general DD News and made an officer on special duty (OSD) in the MIB for the new media wing and social media cell. Apparently, neither Prakash nor Sircar were consulted on the selection. The MIB’s defence was that it holds the sole prerogative for  IIS transfers and did not require any endorsement from Prasar Bharati. The ministry blamed “bad drafting” for the initial order on 29 May that asked Jain to report to the MIB “for all purposes,” and released a modified order on 4 June asking her to report to Prasar Bharati for “all operational purposes” and to the MIB as the OSD. While a copy of the new order was marked to the chairman, Sircar was left out again. He tweeted on 5 June:

The question of autonomy does not appear to be restricted only to the selection of employees. In a recent letter to Prakash regarding the launch of DD Kisan—a 24-hour channel under Doordarshan that will be dedicated to Indian agriculture—Sircar alleged that the MIB’s interference with Prasar Bharati had increased in the past few months. When asked about the letter, Sircar told TheEconomic Times that, “It was getting confusing in the last minute as to who was running the show. This two-command line is not good for any organisation.”

Meanwhile, the MIB resorted to its oft-repeated argument and maintained that since Prasar Bharati is funded by the government, it must be accountable to the ministry. Its systemic inefficiencies, and low viewership and revenues do not boost Prasar Bharati’s case either. But the central issue, as a report released by a government-committee headed by Sam Pitroda—a former advisor to the prime minister of India on public information, infrastructure and innovation—repeatedly stressed, is finding the right balance between funding, autonomy and accountability. The report, released on 24 January 2014, held that it was imperative for Prasar Bharati to become a “public broadcaster as compared to a government broadcaster.”

During our conversation over email, Pande sent me a copy of the speech that she had delivered in in December 2013 to welcome the Sam Pitroda committee. In the speech, she blamed the lack of autonomy that Prasar Bharati suffered from, on the “Talmudic interpretation of the Act” by ruling governments.

“If I were to capture the spirit of Sam Pitroda report, it was ‘making PB (Prasar Bharati) similar to BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)’. The recommendations of the committee were not acted upon by the government. I am not even sure whether they were officially accepted by the government,” Barua told me. “Two changes are absolutely essential,” he added. “One, funding that is independent of annual grants by the government, and two, complete revamp of the functioning of the organisation—structure, systems and processes.”

I spoke to Pitroda, who is now based in Chicago, over the phone, and he told me, “It’s not just about a stable government or gaps between policy and implementation. Our current organisational structures are not equipped for implementation. We need massive administrative, judicial, and political reforms.” Referring to other reports made by the Sengupta committee, Bakshi committee and Narayanamurthy committee in the past, Pitroda said, “All these committees have done a reasonably good job on what’s needed, but who’s going to execute these big reforms? There is no good time to implement reforms. There will always be some reason to not do it, but you just have to!”

The key recommendations of the Sam Pitroda report were: the effective transfer of ownership and management of DD and AIR assets and human resources to Prasar Bharati, setting up dedicated recruitment and regulatory bodies, and an upgradation of funding models to include internal resource mobilisation and private investment.

“It’s sad,” Pitroda commented on the failure to implement these recommendations. “You need generational change and openness. But everybody wants to control and advise everybody else. Prasar Bharati is a classic example of how we have really destroyed the system.”

As for the near future, Pitroda wasn’t very hopeful, given the lack of intent. “I don’t see any substantial change till the leadership really bites the bullet, is sincere about change, and finds the right people to execute it. The technology is available, but the existing systems can’t do it. The media needs to do a good job of articulating developmental issues—set the tone and focus, create pressure on the system—for we’re a democracy still!” he concluded.