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Open Houses and Closed Doors
Though the media set the public agenda and citizens have a stake in it, they are mostly missing from TRAI's consultations for shaping media policy.
Posted/Updated Friday, Mar 10 00:00:00, 2006

Ammu Joseph

An Open House to discuss issues relating to 'convergence and competition in broadcasting and telecommunications' was recently held in Bangalore by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which oversees national policies relating to the broadcast and telecom sectors, including the Internet.  According to a press release posted on the TRAI website, all interested agencies and individuals were invited to participate in the three-hour session held at a five-star hotel here on 21 February 2006.  Not only did the term 'Open House' imply that the event was open to the public, but TRAI's official announcement of the meeting specifically referred to 'public consultation.' 

But who among the citizens of Bangalore attended this Open House?  How was the public to know that such an event was taking place?  Is regular checking of the TRAI site the only option?  Certainly little information was available in the local press.  Deccan Herald was the only English daily to at least list the TRAI Open House in its city engagements column on the day it was to take place; the other five English newspapers published here made no mention of it - not even in the city briefs/digest columns of the main paper or the city supplements. 

The next day (22 February), The Times of India had a tiny (one column-one inch) item on page two recording that such an open forum was conducted.  Deccan Herald had a brief report on Page two, but the focus in the headline and the story was on the demands of cable operators for low-interest loans; the only others quoted were representatives of private telecom companies.  The Asian Age report on the front page of the Bangalore Age focussed primarily on the other discussion scheduled to take place at the same event - regarding Next Generation Networks (NGN); the story, which reported that participants had suggested that TRAI educate the public before introducing NGN in the country, did not even clarify what NGN is.  The Hindu carried a four-column report at the top of page five, along with a photograph of the TRAI contingent at the meeting.  However, the intro, photo caption and story referred only to the discussion on NGN.  It was not clear from the press coverage whether or not the proposed discussion on issues relating to convergence and competition in broadcasting and telecommunications took place at all. 

What were these issues anyway?  TRAI's consultation paper on the subject, dated 2 January 2006 and posted on its website, highlighted the reality and benefits of convergence in all aspects of regulation of the telecommunications and broadcasting industries.  It argued that convergence would not only increase the competitiveness of the industry and the efficiency of the economy but also empower consumers in terms of prices as well as services. 

If the impact on consumers is one of the important issues involved in this matter, surely citizens - at least in their role as consumers - must be considered stakeholders and efforts must be made to get their views on board?  Yet, of the 12 'stakeholders' who furnished comments on the consultation paper before the 30 January deadline, only three were individuals (one a Delhi-based advocate, another a Mumbai-based retired army officer and the third identified only by name and location:  Gurgaon).  The rest were all commercial organisations, two based overseas (Singapore and the USA), four in Delhi, two in Mumbai and one in Bangalore.  This limited feedback, together with inputs received at the so-called Open House, will presumably be taken as 'public consultation' and factored into TRAI's recommendations to the government on how to deal with convergence and competition in broadcasting and telecommunications. 

The recent event in Bangalore was only one of the many so-called Open Houses organised by TRAI over the past couple of years, which most ordinary citizens could not participate in because they simply did not know that they were on the cards.  And, also, because quite a few of them were held only in Delhi, some in Delhi and Mumbai, the occasional one in Delhi and Bangalore (as in the recent case) -- rarely even in other metros -- and invariably in the exclusive confines of luxury hotels. 

For example, TRAI's Open House on Satellite Radio Policy was held in February 2005 in Hotel Samrat, Delhi.  Its Open House on the Digitalisation of Cable Television was held in March 2005 at the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi and the Leela Kempinski in Mumbai.  And its Open House on Issues Relating to Private Terrestrial TV Broadcast Services was held in May 2005 only at the Ashoka Hotel, Delhi.

The latter, concerning the question of whether or not to allow private terrestrial television broadcast services, was the subject of a process that took place a year ago and is in many ways similar to the recent one on convergence and competition in broadcasting and telecommunications.  Since it is a somewhat less technical subject, it is a little easier to figure out the significance of developments in this area of media policy.  Terrestrial TV is an important part of broadcasting because it has the potential to reach a much wider section of the population than satellite TV, which is accessible only those with cable connections or satellite dishes.  

TRAI issued a consultation paper on the issues involved in February 2005 to 'obtain the inputs of stakeholders and to generate a discussion on the appropriate policy and licensing framework for the introduction of private terrestrial television broadcast services in India.'  Based on these inputs, TRAI would either give its recommendations to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting or go in for a more detailed consultation. 

According to the paper, the odds were clearly in favour of granting private players entry into terrestrial TV broadcast services, which have so far been restricted to Doordarshan under Prasar Bharati.  The argument in favour of private operators cited global precedents and asserted that the grant of licenses to private FM radio broadcasters had resulted in a significant increase in radio listenership and the re-emergence of radio as a significant media sector. 

Plurality of views was listed in the paper as one of the several advantages of private sector participation in terrestrial television broadcasting.  And here the paper supported its argument in favour of private sector participation by paraphrasing the Supreme Court's landmark judgment in the case between the Union of India and the Cricket Association of Bengal over telecast rights.  That judgment upheld the public's right to free speech and expression, which includes the right to receive and impart information, and the right to a range of opinions on all public issues, and precludes monopoly control over the media -- by the State or anyone else. 

According to TRAI, by allowing the private sector into terrestrial TV broadcasting, Doordarshan's present monopoly would end and plurality of views would flourish. Whether or not there is real plurality of views among the plethora of private satellite TV channels in multiple languages that is currently available to Indian audiences is clearly a debatable issue. Under the circumstances, one can hardly assume that private terrestrial channels would be any different.  In any case, if the Supreme Court mandate regarding freedom of speech and expression, and plurality of views, in the media is to be put into practice, it does not make sense to continue to withhold permission to private FM radio channels to broadcast news and current affairs.  And, even more importantly, it is indefensible to hold off granting licenses to community radio, if not television.  

In the so-called consultative process that followed the February paper, 'stakeholders' were given one month to send in feedback.  It is not clear how stakeholders were defined and/or informed about this opportunity, but the fact is that of the 15 entities who furnished comments on the paper, nine were private media companies, including three based overseas (in the USA and Singapore), one was a government agency (ISRO), and one an international organisation (UNESCO).  Only four were individuals whose credentials and affiliations were not available in the document posted on the TRAI site - while one was from Bangalore and another from Delhi, even the locations of the other two were not provided).  Not surprisingly, the only participant to mention and argue for community television was UNESCO. 

It is not clear from the site who subsequently attended the Open House held in Delhi in May 2005 but by the end of August TRAI was ready with its recommendations to the government, which were expectedly in favour of allowing the entry of the private sector into terrestrial broadcasting services. 

As a sop, perhaps, the document did mention that such a policy decision could pave the way for community television.  According to the document, 'The recommendations recognise that community television could also be permitted and detailed recommendations on this would be sent once Government takes an in principle decision to allow the private sector for terrestrial broadcasting and also after the Government policy on community television is finalised.'  This seems rather a long shot considering that community radio is still waiting to be legitimised even though a number of projects clearly demonstrating its value and importance have been underway in different parts of the country for several years. 

What these examples demonstrate is that media policy - with far-reaching implications -- is being formulated in the country today without the knowledge, let alone the participation, of even the cognoscenti among media professionals and users, let alone the ever-growing number of citizens who are media consumers.  In the absence of participation by citizens it is hardly surprising that it is, primarily, the broadcast industry that currently contributes comments on TRAI's consultation papers on various aspects of the electronic media and participates in its Open House discussions. 

Is there a reason why citizens must be informed about and participate in these policy debates?  Consider the facts.  First of all, the press -- or the news media -- are supposed to play a vital role in democracy as the Fourth Estate, one of the four pillars of democracy alongside the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary.  It stands to reason that the watchdog of the other three estates and of society as a whole must also, ultimately, be accountable to the public. 

Secondly, few would deny that the mass media wield enormous power in today's world.  They are increasingly playing the role once played by family, community, religion and formal education:  not only disseminating information and knowledge, but also shaping values and norms, moulding attitudes and behaviour, and influencing the very process of living. 

Thirdly, the media set the public agenda in many ways:  for example, it decides which wars and conflicts we should know about and what we should know about them, which disasters and diseases are worth our attention, which scams and scandals we must get hot and bothered about, what issues we should be informed and concerned about, what happenings in the city we need to be aware of, and so on.  The media are also in a position to pressurise the State to act and they enjoy this privilege because they are supposed to represent the public interest. 

So citizens clearly have a stake in the media and have a right to be heard on media-related matters - not only issues relating to media content but also those concerning media policy.  Unfortunately, even sections of civil society that are vocal and vigorous on a wide range of important issues have yet to intervene actively in media matters.  Yet, as P.V. Satheesh of the Deccan Development Society in Andhra Pradesh (which works with over 5000 Dalit women in Medak District) says, media sovereignty is as critical, especially to the poor, as sovereignty in food, seeds, natural resources and markets. 

That is why DDS - and others like Voices in Karnataka, the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghatan in Gujarat, and so on - began helping people, especially poor rural women, to set up their own radio facilities and make their own programmes.  All these years later the DDS radio station -- and others like it -- are still restricted to narrow-casting, with the government continuing to dilly-dally over granting licenses to real community broadcasters (as opposed to campus radio, which is a very different thing). 

The DDS application for an FM radio licence, submitted in August 2000, was finally refused in January 2002.  The government's six-line rejection stated:  'At present the government does not have a policy of granting licenses to NGOs or charitable institutions for setting up and operating radio stations.  Licenses have been issued only to Indian registered private companies for operating FM channels for entertainment, music and information.'  As Vinod Pavarala of Hyderabad University wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly, 'The question we should ask is:  why does our government find Rupert Murdoch more trustworthy than a poor, unlettered, Dalit woman who wants to use a media channel to communicate?' 

And as General Narsamma, one of the three DDS radio women, asked a couple of years ago:  'For over six years we have been ready for transmission.  We hear that people in Delhi or foreigners get permission to start their own radio.  Does that mean that small villages like Pastapur have no right to have their own radio?  For small people like us will that opportunity be denied for ever?' 

The democratisation of the media is one of the important challenges of the future.  The 1995 Supreme Court judgment provides legitimacy to the notion that the primary purpose of all broadcasting is to serve the public interest.  This is a potentially powerful tool that has, so far, not been sufficiently highlighted, let alone effectively used.  In the resulting vacuum, the judgment has been interpreted very narrowly to promote private participation in broadcasting.  But in reality it provides a sound basis for citizens' involvement in matters concerning broadcasting in the interest of securing people's right to independent media that can create the public sphere so vital for democracy.

Contact: ammujo2003@yahoo.co.in

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