Narendra Modi

The editing of the Narendra Modi interview has raised a political storm and has brought back attention to the fight for ‘autonomy’ to Prasar Bharati. With Prasar Bharati coming under fire from BJP for editing portions of the interview, the controversy has now got further stoked by a letter written by the CEO of Prasar Bharati, Jawahar Sircar and addressed to the Board Members.

The letter has highlighted lack of autonomy to Prasar Bharati and has strongly hinted at interference in operational matters and the news division, from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB). The letter has now instigated a charge and counter charge battle between the BJP and Congress.

Congress members have raised questions regarding the timing of this letter and have stated that Jawahar Sircar is trying to curry favour from the incumbent government and defending his own turf.

The recent editing of the Modi interview is being seen as ‘political censorship’ rather than ‘technical editing’ and questions are now being raised regarding Prasar Bharati’s ‘autonomy’. As an immediate reaction to the controversy, Prasar Bharati maintained that the editing was done for ‘technical’ reasons. However, this letter now has raised serious questions regarding MIB’s involvement and interference in operational matters of Prasar Bharati.

The letter goes on to mention lack of autonomy in personnel selection, postings, financial matters and overall operations. This is in stark contrast to the official government position that Prasar Bharati was already an autonomous body and free to operate independent of government control.

Work in progress

To its credit, the UPA II has taken initiative towards granting more autonomy by setting up an expert panel headed by Sam Pitroda to suggest amendments to the Prasar Bharati Act, 1990. In January this year, the committee presented a report to the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Manish Tiwari, which called for greater administrative and financial autonomy to be granted to the Public Broadcaster.

The Committee suggested to “effect complete transfer of ownership and management of assets and human resource to Prasar Bharati to make the organization administratively and financial autonomous of government”. It recommended that the government waive Rs 13,641 crore due to it from Prasar Bharati and encourage the Public Broadcaster to look at various financial models for raising funding from alternate sources, including private investment.

Prasar Bharati has large tracts of land across India that were used to set-up shortwave transmitters that are no longer in use. These assets could be commercially monetized to raise funding.

Other recommendations included setting up of a ‘third arm’, independent of Doordarshan and All India Radio, to promote and use ‘social media’ in connecting with the people and taking its message overseas. At the time, Jawahar Sircar, CEO, stated “we want new forward looking workforce to handle social media, even for our FM radio programs and for designing our own overseas messages”.

So the question is, if the UPA II has taken initiative towards autonomy and the same is work in progress, then why has the CEO written this letter at this time? Is the timing related to the latest editing controversy? If so, then who took the call to edit the tapes and why? Did the MIB influence the decision in any way? These questions need early addressing to resolve the issue and move towards the process of establishing Prasar Bharati as a truly independent body that is professional in its approach and is free to carry out the role of a dynamic and responsible broadcaster.

Problems plaguing Prasar Bharati

Doordarshan, a division of Prasar Bharati, is India’s largest broadcaster reaching the largest number of viewers in India. Broadcasting has evolved tremendously over the years with the private channels demonstrating dynamic business models that have drawn viewers away from Doordarshan. Today, Doordarshan is barely watched in urban centers and is existing in audience segments where alternate options are not available.

Broadcasting is a dynamic activity that requires quick adaptation to evolving news, social trends, social and political issues and people entertainment. To keep pace with this, you need people who are in sync with the changing times and can feel the pulse of what people want. Prasar Bharati’s bloated personnel base of 32,500 needs to be pruned significantly while bringing in talent that can bring in new technology, enhance creative content and take the broadcaster to world class standards.

Time to act

Unless Prasar Bharati is allowed and able to implement financial business models independent of the government, it will never be able to free itself from governmental control, which will always seek to use the medium to promote its own message, defeating the very purpose of an ‘autonomous’ broadcaster.

It will now be up to the incumbent government to act on the recommendation of the expert panel and hope Prasar Bharati is able to re-invent itself to emerge as a quality and competitive broadcaster. Prasar Bharati still has a vital role to play in the nation’s development.