[Reader-list] Public service broadcasting in India: Which master's voice?
aiindex at mnet.fr
Wed Aug 20 05:45:46 IST 2003
The Indian Express
August 20, 2003
Which master's voice?
Prasar Bharati must serve us all, not just the government of the day
B. G. Verghese
Prasar Bharati celebrated a proud moment in its history earlier this
month, the 60th anniversary of Broadcasting House in Delhi. Many
referred to Gandhiji's inspiring words in praise of openness and
pluralism inscribed over its portal and hoped for a new beginning of
creativity, excellence, credibility and autonomy as the nation's
public service broadcaster.
Only days later, the axe fell. Without reference to the board that
appointed him, or even Prasar Bharati's chairman or chief executive
officer, or anything in writing, the government surreptitiously
informed the director general of Doordarshan that he was being
removed mid-term as he no longer enjoyed the confidence of the
minister of information and broadcasting/ government.
No reason was assigned nor any grounds cited even later in
communications with the chairman and CEO. The action was arbitrary
and mala fide and inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the
Prasar Bharati Act. Whether the prime minister or deputy prime
minister were previously or subsequently consulted is immaterial.
The DG, an honourable, upright and competent official, enjoyed the
confidence of the PB Board to whom he is responsible. He will now go
as soon as formal orders are passed - which could well await the
adjournment of Parliament so as to minimise the stink.
Prasar Bharati has suffered a gratuitous body blow as a national
public service institution for collateral reasons that may have more
to do with ego or petty political or electoral gain through trying to
ensure a pliant trumpet. Its credibility and autonomy - such as it is
- will be grievously undermined both within the organisation and in
the public eye. There is already no DG AIR and now there will be no
The CEO will be required to man all these posts as also that of
director (personnel), whose selection has not been made for six
years. Virtually all personnel and finances still remain under
Ex post facto justification may now be offered. This would be
dishonest and is unlikely to convince anybody. It is a specious
argument that the outgoing DG DD is an IAS officer on deputation who
did not resign from his cadre and that his services are therefore at
the disposal of the government.
The PB rules framed by the government under the act stipulate that
the two DGs, who are ex officio members of the board, shall be
selected from among civil servants. Only in the event of no suitable
incumbent being found may the board go outside that circle, with
prior official permission.
In this case, the outgoing DG DD was sounded out by the government
and persuaded to give up a prestigious posting and offer his
candidature on a three-year deputation. He did so, and was selected
by the PB board from a large field of candidates. It cannot now be
argued that he can be plucked out of his selected appointment
capriciously, at the whim and fancy of his cadre controlling
authority - and that too without grounds or for some larger, stated
The act vests the government with reserve powers to issue directions
to Prasar Bharati in writing but only in the interests of
sovereignty, public order, etc, none of which apply here. It has no
innate power to transfer personnel. If it did so on earlier occasion,
it was because each of these incumbents was appointed ad interim on
an emergency basis because of the inability to make a statutory
appointment through prescribed procedures.
To plead that the DG and other PB employees are paid by the
"government" and therefore remain government servants and subject to
its will is frivolous. The salaries of all public (and civil)
servants, including ministers and judges, are defrayed from the
national exchequer through established parliamentary processes.
Governance cannot be a matter of whim and fancy. We take pride in and
must uphold the fact that ours is a government of laws and not of men.
The issue raised by this episode is more institutional than
individual. That focus must not be lost. Over and beyond that, it is
the freedom of speech and expression of the common citizen that is at
stake. This is not a proprietorial right that goes with any imagined
official ownership of PB. The Supreme Court's airwaves judgement of
1995 spelt out the law in the broadcast domain and while private
channels were permitted to go on air, AIR and DD were later brought
together under PB as a public service broadcaster. PB is accountable
to Parliament through its budget and annual report through the I&B
Ministry. The Central government is only one part of the many diverse
and plural "publics" that PB serves and cannot statutorily or morally
seek to reduce PB to His Master's Voice.
At the same time, Prasar Bharti needs to put its own house in order.
Autonomy is not given as much as grasped. It has to get its
priorities right in accordance with its charter as laid down in
section 12 of the act. Its programming, including news and current
affairs, must uphold plurality and diversity and air contrasting
voices, certainly giving the government its due. It must devolve more
autonomy on its regional and local kendras, emphasise local,
community and instructional broadcasting as a means of grassroots
articulation and empowerment of the voiceless and underprivileged. It
has to cater to the citizen and not merely the consumer or those in
The PB board is cast as a trustee of the freedom of speech and
expression of the national collective and the conscience of public
service broadcasting. It must build a close interface with its
listeners and viewers including all levels of government - its many
"publics". Such traditions are not established in a day. There have
been the inevitable ups and downs. The latest government diktat marks
a slide down a snake. But the game is not over and there are ladders
to climb. Good sense and wisdom must be encouraged to prevail.
The ideal of public service broadcasting in the Indian context is too
valuable a prize to be abandoned to the whims of small men and the
idiosyncrasies of the moment. But wake up to the challenge. It is
your freedom that is at stake. Let none take it away.
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