MARK Tully recently wrote, “Whenever I talk to students of journalism in India about radio I am told ‘It’s dead. Killed by television’. As the presenter of a radio programme broadcast in Britain I know that’s certainly not true there.” In India, however, “while the government has lost control over television it retains a monopoly over radio news”.
As Dan Rather put it, television news has been ‘dumbed down’. It seeks eyeballs to the screen in order to build ratings and sell advertising. What alternative has the citizen but to switch over to a foreign radio or TV channel since the news on All India Radio (AIR) is even more slanted than the chauvinistic fare doled out by TV channels evening after evening?
Television has come to stay. But that is no reason for neglecting radio as a poor cousin. One of India’s finest judges told the writer that he prefers to listen to the news on radio rather than watch it on TV. It sticks more firmly in the mind.
As far as news and commentaries on the news are concerned, radio triumphs over TV. The BBC’s news reaches villages early in the morning, long before the newspapers arrive. In the evenings, they listen to Urdu or Hindu news broadcasts, which they find to be more credible than local print or TV press. They may be wrong in this view. The point is that they have a right to choose. There is no privately owned shortwave radio station in India. Across 84 cities, 281 private FM channels are operational. The government has decided to e-auction 839 more channels in 294 cities. It has granted permission for 519 community radio stations, out of which 201 are operational. But they are banned from broadcasting news, gathered independently by their own correspondents or other sources, as well as current affairs programmes.
On Nov 28, 2008, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India recommended that private FM broadcasters “may only be permitted to broadcast news, taking content from AIR, Doordarshan, authorised TV news channels, United News of India, Press Trust of India and any other authorised news agency without any substantive change in the content”. On July 25, 2011, FM was allowed broadcast of FM radio news bulletins of AIR, without any addition or modification.
An NGO, Common Cause, filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India in 2013 to declare the curbs violate the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. The curbs are embodied in the policy guidelines and grant of permission agreement drawn up by the government. The petition pointed out that no other democratic country had similar restrictions. “None of the USA’s 14,000-plus radio stations, the 2,000-odd stations in Spain or the 1,000-plus stations each in Italy, France, Greece and Australia are barred from airing news and cultural affairs. In fact, many stations are solely news channels, including specialised ones for community radio.” The apex court noted that few can afford to open a private TV channel, but people can open FM and community radio stations.
The home ministry’s reply drew an alarming picture. “Broadcast of news by these stations/channels may pose a possible security risk as there is no mechanism to monitor the contents of the news bulletins of every such station. These stations may be exploited by foreign/radical organisations to broadcast radical views.” At present, broadcasting news bulletins and current affairs programmes on radio are AIR’s “exclusive preserve”.
The court took the matter up on Feb 15, 2017. It merely asked the government to allow community radio and private FM radio stations to broadcast news, but on the basis of information available in the public domain. According to a report, the court said it “might not be feasible to give a free hand to private radio stations to broadcast their own news as it might create ‘havoc’ in sensitive areas like the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, but they should be permitted to take the contents of newspapers and TV channels to broadcast them”. This is poor consolation to the citizen.
The government’s counsel gave the familiar excuse “national security and public order”. Anti-nationals might use private radios “for propagating their agenda”. The court questioned the government’s right to foist AIR’s news bulletins on private radio stations. But the only concession it mentioned was freedom to air contents of newspapers and TV channels.
There is no pre-censorship news on powerful TV channels or the press. There is no reason why FM radio or community radios, of far more limited range, should be subjected to such humiliating curbs which impair their credibility and worth. In any case the curbs are inherently void. They violate the fundamental right to free speech. The radio is a part of the citizen’s daily life — an inseparable friend.