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Radio News Monopoly

Perhaps as the only democracy in the world, India keeps up a state monopoly in radio news. In a country with more than 1.34 billion people, residing in the world’s largest democracy, only state-owned All India Radio (AIR) is permitted to broadcast news and current affairs programmes. AIR is a part of the Prasar Bharati Corporation, officially an autonomous body in charge of the national television Doordarshan, and the national radio AIR. Privately-owned broadcasters running FM radio stations have the license to provide almost everything else, like music and entertainment content, except news.

 

Legal Environment Under Criticism

Given the vibrant and flourishing Indian media environment, it makes little sense why news broadcast is limited to the AIR. Already in 2004, when the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) took over the regulatory responsibilities for broadcasting, it suggested the removal of the ban on news production for private FM stations in its first set of recommendations. In a second round it toned down the proposal to recommending a permission of news broadcasting on private FM channels as long as they take into consideration the existing policies of other media sectors and do not harm the AIR programming code. The latest recommendations from 2008 did not have much left of the initial request, but to allow for private FM channels to air unedited news segments taken from AIR, Doordarshan (DD), Press Trust of India (PTI), authorized TV News Channels, United News of India (UNI) and any other authorized news agencies. Still, the government did not lift any part of the original restrictions, quoting an alleged lack of monitoring capabilities to check compliance.

Finally, in 2011 a minor concession has been achieved as commercial radio stations were now allowed to broadcast news taken from AIR as long as they did not differ at all from what has been originally broadcast.

In 2013 the ban on news broadcast by private radio stations was contested by the Non-Governmental-Organization (NGO), Common Cause. In a letter to the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, Common Cause questioned this government policy. It stated the violation of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. The NGO did not receive a reply to their letter, which prompted them to file a Public Interest Litigation – PIL – in the Supreme Court. In 2017, the Government of India filed an affidavit explaining the reasons why private radio stations could not be allowed to broadcast news, stating that anti-national elements within the country and abroad could misuse these stations to propagate their agenda, that will be detrimental to national interests. It further added that "It is believed that news and current affairs, with their inherent capability to manipulate the minds of the people have been advisedly kept beyond the limits of private radio stations. Any shift in this policy would necessitate an adherence to a rigorous code of conduct; a proper monitoring mechanism and penal provisions of violation of such a broadcast code".

This statement, on the face of it, strikes contradictory to India’s constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and expression.

Earlier this year (2019) a new set of rules have been introduced to allow broadcast of unaltered news bulletins of AIR on private FM stations free of cost. After turning down the FM stations’ request to repackage the AIR bulletins in a reproduced manner, and the failed attempt to have them pay for using their unaltered news, the government has allowed the latter on a free trial basis. Private FM stations – and only those registered on the AIR website – are now able to broadcast the unedited news bulletins no later than 30 minutes after they are broadcast on AIR.

The change has been presented as a historic event by the state-owned media holding, Prasar Bharati, as the new access to information ‘empowers’ the common citizen through creating awareness and supporting education. However, what the change actually does is widens the audience and exposes greater number of people to the voice of the state-run Prasar Bharati. The FM stations are still not allowed to produce their own news on radio. By design or not, the trial was introduced for the period of general elections and will be running out on the 31st of May 2019.

It is to be expected that this new regulation will not satisfy the demands for independent news production of private FM stations. A good amount of the latter are part of bigger media houses, which already cater the public with news via other media channels. Therefore, they have access to a greater network of reporters across the country than AIR alone could provide in order to inform the masses about all kinds of news from several perspectives. The raised concern about national security out of the lack of a monitoring tool for Radio has been addressed by The Association of Radio Operators for India (AROI) stating that it cannot be decisively different to monitor 300+ radio stations since a monitoring for 100.000+ publications and 800+ TV Stations is being managed, too. It has been communicated that the AROI members are willing to form a code of conduct about what can and what cannot be aired if monitoring remains the main issue.

A Strong Tool under Strong Control - Radio Reaches Most Indians

The radio scenario in India presents some decisive insights about the reach and hence, impact of radio. An overwhelming 99% of the country’s population has access to radio, which can be explained by its low costs of acquisition, its portable nature and the fact that it is a medium which reaches also the illiterate. A basic radio set is available for as low as Rs 50 /$0.73, making it a convenient medium of entertainment. And then there is the technology part to it for being a very easy medium to manufacture and use.

The numbers associated with the state-run All India Radio are overwhelming. Technically, it reaches nearly 92% of the country’s area and 99.19% of the total population. AIR broadcasts programming in 23 languages and 179 dialects. It has been described as one of the largest broadcasting organisations in the world in terms of the number of languages of broadcast and the “spectrum of socio-economic and cultural diversity it serves,” AIR’s home service comprises 420 terrestrial transmission stations today, located across the country.

Community Radio

A historic judgement by the Supreme Court in 1995, deciding that airwaves are a natural resource and belong to the people, enabled community radios to be implemented in India. Many years later the number of stations is still not very impressive which can be explained with the fact that until 2006 establishing community radios was reserved for educational institutions only. Eventually in 2008 the first community radio was launched by an actual community.

Although community radios are naturally limited in their reach and purpose, restricted to communities to facilitate communication within that group, they play an important role for the Indian citizenry at large. With a population living largely in rural areas and being highly effected by illiteracy, community radios can educate and empower the masses. Consequently giving voice to almost everyone on a grass root level is of particular importance. Since a medium-wave (AM) radio receiver is easily affordable, portable, usable in even far-flung areas and can be run on just a battery, it makes it a powerful tool for that purpose. According to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s website, 583 organizations have been provided the Letter of Intent for setting up Community Radio Stations in India although there are only about 180 community radio stations operating yet. Despite the importance of empowering the communities they do not only struggle to survive on a small budget, but just like commercial FM stations, they are also banned from producing content which can be considered news and current affairs.

TV News is Okay, Radio News is Not

Contrast this with news coverage on commercial television channels, which is allowed across the country. According to IndianTelevision.com, the number of television news channels is higher than 400, as of 2016. A Broadcast India Survey Report 2018 says that TV reaches 66% of total homes in India. Given these numbers and the impact of visual news, it opens up the question why radio news on privately owned stations remains banned while there are no such restrictions for television broadcasting. Surya Prakash, chairman of state-owned media holding Prasar Bharati has tried to argue that radio has a “different audience, different kind of reach and there are lots of issues about them.”

History of Radio - The Steps Into a State-Monopoly

Looking back to the years 1923/1924 where radio clubs started the first broadcasts in India it did not take long until they had to shut down their service due to financial issues, the government taking up the service together with a private company, Indian Broadcasting Company (IBC) in 1926 and eventually taking over entirely in 1930 after the IBC went into liquidation. The Indian State Broadcasting became All India Radio – AIR –, how we know it today, in 1936 and not much later in 1937 the Central News Organisation was launched.

When India became independent in 1947, the number of radio sets had reached 275,000. The AIR network had only 6 stations ––(Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Lucknow, and Tiruchirappalli). The 3 radio stations at Lahore, Peshawar and Dhaka remained in what became Pakistan after the division. Back then, the coverage included only 11% of the area and 2.5% of the population.

Deccan Radio (Nizam Radio 1932), with a transmitting power of 200 watts, was the first radio station in Hyderabad State (now Hyderabad India), to go live on air on February 3rd, 1935. It was launched by Mir Osman Ali Khan, the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad. On April 1st, 1950, Deccan Radio was taken over by the Indian Government, and in 1956, it was merged with All India Radio (AIR). Since then, it has been known as AIR-Hyderabad (100 kw).

Mann Ki Baat - The Indian Prime Minister Speaks

A recent development of the past five years provides an eye-opening insight of the potential impact of radio broadcasts, and how the medium can be used as a tool for propagating opinion.

The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi uses the radio to reach his listeners at all corners of the country through a broadcast called Mann Ki Baat, (or, Voice from the heart). The program has been very well received by the target audience, especially the urban masses residing in metropolitan cities across the country. While this has been described as government propaganda, by some critics, a survey in 6 Indian cities including Mumbai and Chennai, has indicated that some 66.7% of the population had tuned into and listened to the prime minister's address and had found it useful.

On Mann Ki Baat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks about taboos in society, encourages good work done by Indians to improve society and country as a whole and cites examples of achievers in various fields. He has encouraged lots of Indian students at the time of exams to do well and how to fight exam pressure.

Mann Ki Baat became a major source of revenue for the All India Radio. The usual ad slots on AIR sold for INR 500 (USD 7.00) – INR 1,500 (US$21) per 10 seconds, but a 10-second ad slot for Mann Ki Baat cost INR 200,000 (USD 2,800).

The Prime Minister’s Mann Ki Baat has now been translated in several Indian languages. However, criticism appears concerning the lack of a counter narrative on this broadcasting platform which points out the critical imbalance in the radio sector of India once again.

It remains to be seen how the medium with the widest reach and the most tight regime of regulation will be used in the future, which voices will be heard and how long the government will be able to hold on to reserving the right to freedom of speech and expression in radio to only itself.


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