Control freakery

Why does it take a public interest litigation to set right an absurdity in broadcasting law two decades too late? The government had considered loosening its monopoly over FM radio in 1993, by selling blocks of airtime for private programming. Then, the auction of 108 frequencies started the FM boom in 2000, but the government was careful to retain a monopoly over what matters — news and current affairs. Until 2011, FM and community radio stations were not permitted to air any programming relating to these areas. The policy guidelines for Phase III of the expansion plan for FM and community radio, rolled out in that year, offered a concession — private operators could rerun news from All India Radio, but without any additions or changes. A miserly and small-minded concession that meant nothing.

Finally, this two-decade-long bout of control freaking is under scrutiny. In response to a PIL, the Supreme Court has asked the government to explain why it believes that private radios should not run their own news programming, though private television channels and print media can. Ironically, many FM radio stations are owned by prominent print and TV publishers. Doubly ironically, TV and internet news have become widely accessible after the proliferation of smartphones and connectivity, even in semi-rural areas. They are at least as easy to reach as FM radio.

The rules in force narrowly define what is news and what is not. The weather, traffic, counselling, coverage of cultural events, examinations, careers and such are defined as "information", which is exempt from curbs. Exclude such trifles and what remains is political news, off limits to India's 245 private FM channels and 145 community radios. Could FM channels run by media houses possibly present a credible threat? They would probably be subject to the same checks as their print or television products. Does the government fear that news could be manipulated by motivated community radios to cause public unrest? Indeed, community radios can be operated cheaply. If liberalised, they would proliferate, but the government need not see them as threats. Rather, they can be partners in development, spreading education and news locally in ways that the government cannot do from up above and far away.

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