Why is the Lok Sabha TV CEO Invoking Arun Jaitley’s Name to Intimidate Colleagues When he has no Jurisdiction Over the Channel?

09 July, 2015

Officially launched in July 2006, Lok Sabha TV (LSTV) was the brainchild of Somnath Chatterjee, the Lok Sabha speaker at that point of time, who envisaged it as an instrument to acquaint citizens with the functioning of the parliament. The channel, which broadcasts the proceedings of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the parliament, is owned and operated by the Lok Sabha, making it, at least in theory, immune to any interference from the government. However, as a recent email exchange between some of the senior officials at LSTV reveals, Seema Gupta, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and editor-in-chief of LSTV, claims to be functioning at the behest of Arun Jaitley, the information and broadcasting minister of India and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Minister of State (MOS) for the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB). In this particular instance, Gupta’s mail sought to justify a decision that appeared to have been taken at LSTV without consulting any senior members of the organisation, by attributing it to directives that were allegedly issued by Jaitley. What remains unclear is why Gupta appeared to think that instructions from Jaitley, if any, would legitimise her decision, given that LSTV is meant to function as an autonomous organisation and is clearly out of his ministry’s purview.

On 26 February 2015, Suresh Prabhu, the union railway minister, presented his maiden Rail budget in the parliament. Soon after, Prabhu’s first interview to the media was conducted by Doordarshan— one of India’s largest public broadcasting organisations that was founded by the central government —and televised through YouTube, while questions for the interview were invited from the public through Twitter. This move, reportedly a result of the Modi-led dispensation’s emphasis on leveraging social media as an instrument “to reach out to people”, was heralded as a departure from established protocol. However, it appears that the interview had originally been conducted by LSTV, and its transfer to Doordarshan without the knowledge of senior functionaries at the organization, prompted a spate of emails addressed to Gupta.

These mails were exchanged on 26 and 27 February 2015, between Dhiraj Singh, the executive director (Programmes) at LSTV, Sumit Singh, executive director (Marketing and Promotions) and Gupta. The subject of the first mail that was sent by Dhiraj Singh read, “Why was clean feed given to DD?” In his email, Dhiraj noted that, “it was disappointing to see all our hard work and planning come to nothing and DD take all the credit of our live interview of Railway Minister Shri Suresh Prabhu soon after presenting the Railway Budget.” He further added that, “Not only did DD not show our LSTV logo they also ran the entire interview with a DD exclusive watermark” such that LSTV received no credit for “a show which was planned and produced” by them.

Making his disappointment apparent, Dhiraj continued, “As you are not in a habit of sharing key information with your senior officers I would like to know what kind of pressure you were under which you had to give a clean feed to DD.” He observed that this was an unprecedented step for LSTV—as was confirmed to me by a senior consultant at the channel—and ended with, “We (LSTV) have never done this with anyone, including the US State channels who wanted a clean feed of the Obama speech in Parliament in 2010.”

In her acerbic reply to Dhiraj, Gupta claimed that the order “to give direct feed to DD” came from “Finance Minister and I & B Minister along with MOS Rawardhan Rathor (Rajyavardhan Rathore)”. She went on to tell Dhiraj, “Do not question authority of Shri Arun Jaitley,” before ending with the threat that she would be forwarding the email to both Jaitley and Rathore.

Replying to Gupta’s email, Sumit Singh noted that, “Nowhere such unprofessional email exchanges have been witnessed. It is below the dignity of the positions which we are all holding.”

Yesterday, in response to my queries regarding these emails, I received the following mail from Gupta:

“As per OUR policy, you will need to send me all the papers that you have for me to comment. Any office communication that has been provided to you needs to be checked by me. Please send me all the papers for verification.”

While The Caravan refused to share the documents, as it would compromise the identity of our source, I did send Gupta the relevant portions of her email quoted verbatim, along with details such as recipient’s name and date.

To which she replied: “I do not have the mail with me,its more than 4 months.You need to send me the mail. You might be quoting me wrongly. Contextual reference in such cases are important.I would like to see the papers.”

Meanwhile, Dhiraj Singh, Sumit Singh, and Sumitra Mahajan—the current speaker of the Lok Sabha—remained unavailable for comment, despite my efforts to contact them.

Earlier, on 6 July 2015, I had met Bhaskar Ghose, who was the media advisor to the Lok Sabha speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of LSTV since its inception till May 2008. During his 36-year-long career in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Ghose worked extensively with public broadcasting in India. Before joining LSTV, he had served as the Director General of Doordarshan from 1986 to 1988, and as secretary of the MIB from 1993 to 1996. Ghose told me as he recalled the founding vision of Somnath Chatterjee behind LSTV. “The idea was based on the essence of democracy as it started in Greece. The senators would hold a public forum to discuss state concerns, and the citizens would gather around them,”

During the course of our conversation, I asked Ghose if LSTV had witnessed instances of interference from the government. “It is a channel set up and run by the Lok Sabha, so the I&B (Information and Broadcasting) ministry has no control over it. It is not a government channel, it deals with the legislature—the executive has no control —and the speaker holds the final authority,” he told me.

“While I was there, all editorial decisions were made internally, and the I&B ministry, or even the speaker for that matter, never interfered. I only had to report to the speaker regarding funds, and he was always very understanding,” Ghose added.

When I spoke to Rajiv Mishra, who was the CEO of LSTV from December 2011 to May 2014, he appeared to agree with Ghose’s assessment and affirmed that there had been “no instances of interference by I&B ministry or the government, editorial or otherwise,” during his tenure.

However, the state of affairs seems to have undergone a change since Gupta’s appointment as the CEO of LSTV in November 2014. As a senior official at LSTV told me, “There is a lack of transparency since she took over. There hasn’t been an editorial meeting since December, only mails. And she would simply write, ‘Please see that this is done’. That is not how a channel works!”

Moreover, the senior official claimed that the threats in the name of Arun Jaitley, were a regular feature at LSTV and “like a class teacher trying to scare children with the principal’s name.” In fact, he added that another senior official had once called the bluff and asked Gupta to put him through to Jaitley. She never followed up.

Late last month, I had reported on the government’s increasing control over Prasar Bharati—the public broadcaster that administers the All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan. Given the government’s penchant for exerting its authority over organisations that may or may not fall under its purview, it is difficult to guess whether Gupta’s regular invocations of Jaitley’s name are empty threats or an indication of the MIB’s attempts to extend its sphere of influence.