In this Idea Exchange moderated by Senior Editor Archna Shukla,I&B minister Ambika Soni speaks about self-regulation by the media,empowering the Press Council of India and the Congress partys stand on corruption
Archna Shukla: There is a growing perception that the government is unhappy with media criticism. The editor of a leading English daily publicly claimed that government advertisements have been stopped to his publication. Is the government being vindictive?
I have seen no signs of vindictiveness. As for the government being unhappy with the media,in recent months,we have had some pretty out-of-the-ordinary movements in India…popular manifestations of the citizens viewpoint. The issue of corruption has been taken up and there is much support for it across the country. There was a feeling across the political spectrum that the media was proactive. MPs felt that the media had become part of the whole movement and was not as objective as one expects an independent media to be. I did get quite a lot of flak: people felt that maybe if the I&B ministry had been more proactive,we could have prevented the media from writing or telecasting the demonstrations,the speeches and whatever happened in the weeks since April. But in all the time that I have been minister,I havent had any directions from either the Prime Minister or the UPA chairperson for any kind of control or restrictions on the media. The mandate Ive had is for self-regulation. We are all used to a free media in India. There is a Press Council for regulating the print media; television doesnt have a regulatory body. So there is no vindictiveness…that is not the way forward in the 21st century.
Coomi Kapoor: After the Anna Hazare campaign,a Group of Ministers on media was formed. How has this group been operating and what is it meant to do?
In UPA-1 and UPA-II,we have not had a spokesperson for the council of ministers. Meanwhile,the dimensions of ministries have grown…the flagship programmes have their own complexities. No one can claim to be a proper spokesperson giving detailed information in reply to the medias searching questions. We have been talking about this and at the end of April,when I did get a chance to meet the PM and the UPA chairperson together,I said that one of the reasons we cant be actively engaged with the media is because no one person can have the full information that they are seeking. That led to the constitution of this group of seven ministers. We meet Monday to Friday. We identify for the group the issues that could be raised by the media. Then we take a call to respond to thosesometimes we hold a press conference from among ourselves or ask a minister who is not a part of our group to take the call.
Maneesh Chhibber: Justice Katju,as Press Council Chairman,is seeking more powers and also wants to regulate TV. Is self-regulation working in the case of TV?
Justice Katju is an eminent jurist and till very recently a Supreme Court judge,known for his frank talking. I think he has been a little misjudged: if you look at Press Council of India records,similar suggestions have been made by his predecessor,Justice G N Ray. Some of his suggestions like renaming the Press Council as the Media Council came up at an Editors Guild seminar two years ago. There was a suggestion,in writing,that the electronic media should be brought into the fold,especially on advertisements. These have been there for a long time. Its just that he has articulated them again and because he has been given a platform,and he is eminently qualified to speak on them… you are suddenly sitting up and taking notice. As early as January 2011,the government constituted,at the I&Bs request,a GoM headed by Pranab Mukherjee to look into the report on paid news. There was a suggestion to empower the Press Council further. In 2009,we had a debate in the Rajya Sabha. Most political leaders spoke of empowering the Press Council. We at I&B felt that any such steps should have a consensual approach across the political platform. So I think Justice Katju has reiterated the views that were there before.
Archna Shukla: There is a perception that Justice Katjus appointment was managed by the government. His name was announced immediately after he retired from the Bench.
The government doesnt come into the picture at all while appointing the Chairman of the Press Council. Its a selection group headed by the Vice President of India,the Lok Sabha Speaker and an elected member from within the Press Council. Traditionally,the post has gone to a retired Supreme Court judge. They chose Justice Katju for his eminence and his frank talking.
The television industry is still young400 or 500 channels have come up in the last 3-4 years,and today,we have about 700 channels,roughly half of them news channels. In todays day and time,the new media tools,the social media,are so powerful that theres no way you can control them. There was an attempt made in 2002 with the Convergence Bill but it was so cumbersome that it was given up. So the best way forward would be to sensitise the media,the anchors,reporters,etc. At the same time,there has been movement on what we would like to see and what we would not like to see: theres digitisation,watershed hours,adult content from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.,parental locks on television channels,etc. These are all ways forward. Anything done by force I dont think is to anyones advantage.
Rakesh Sinha: When do you start the digitisation of TV and does it begin with the metros?
We got it cleared by the Cabinet,there was an ordinance. It has a mandatory six-month period for people to put their things in place. Metros that were to go digital by the first of March will do it by June 30,2012. After December 31,2014,there will be no analog. Initially cable operators were reluctant. Now they realise that there are a million DTH connections a month so it would be unviable to carry on like this if they dont modernise and go digital.
Archna Shukla: Justice Katju is saying give me teeth to bare,not to bite. Do you think the Press Council should preside over the electronic media?
Its not his thinking only. Justice Sawant and Justice Ray had given us these suggestions on quite a few occasions. They felt the need for more power,especially in the wake of the paid news phenomenon. Justice Ray and now Justice Katju feel that if they do find people culpable of paid news,for instance,what can they do with them? Maybe in their wisdom,after discussions in the Press Council,they arrived at these suggestions which they sent to the government and I put them before a GoM. So lets see what the GoM decides.
Pranab Dhal Samanta: When the government was going through what many call the crisis of perception,the spotlight was on the I&B ministry. There seems to be a need for a more aggressive role for the I&B ministry so that you have greater access to decisions the government takes and can convey it in a certain way. Then you have issues like the Prasar Bharati,where the I &B ministry feels quite toothless. How do you see your own ministryits limitations,its role and its future?
I personally feel the I&B has been an add-on in the portfolio of a minister. Its been more of a ministry of PR. I&B does not have an economic intent because the film industry is independent and television is also private. Though the media and entertainment sector is one of the fastest growing sectors of the Indian economy,I&B is not a member of the CCEA. Most of the areas where I&B is supposed to be a facilitator are autonomous,like Prasar Bharati. We play a small role there. Look at the CAG report on CWG. It felt that I&B did not do enough to prevent the Prasar Bharati from committing its acts of commission. But I&B has no role in that. I know The Indian Express is a strong proponent of the idea that to cut down the expenses of the Government of India,wind up I&B.
Manu Pubby: There is a boom in FM radio. Why is the government reluctant about opening it up for news?
We are now on the threshold of the first phase of the three-phase auction of FM radio. This will take radio stations to about 800-900. In cities with a lakh plus population,we have FM radio. Now we have increased the content for FM radio. News is being allowed for the first time,sports commentary,weather and many other subjects other than just film music. There were a lot of private players who wanted free news. But on these matters,the main clearance comes from the ministry of home affairs for a security point of view. They felt that at the moment it was best to allow only Akashvani news,not agency-based or free news. They feel that in the border areas of our country,signal ranges are not yet within the security reach of the home ministry. In todays political and security conditions,I wouldnt argue with home Ministry on security perceptions.
Coomi Kapoor: How is it that in a disciplined party like the Congress,spokespersons speak in different voices and some unofficial spokespersons speak in a completely different voices,like Mr Digvijay Singh?
Mr Digvijay Singh is general secretary of the Congress party and is an extremely senior leader. He speaks on certain subjects and much of that is part of the partys ideology and thinking. I dont see the contradiction because I havent heard anyone contradicting his statements.
Coomi Kapoor: He has taken a much stronger line on Team Anna than the rest of the party.
No,thats not true. There are people who have taken a stronger line. Everybody has spoken of the need for a strong Lokpal. I dont think any spokesperson of the party or the government has said that they dont feel that the fight against corruption is not important. This was emphasised at the Burari session of the AICC,much before Team Anna came on the scene. Mrs Gandhi went to the extent of asking us to identify,as ministers,the perks,the patronage avenues for each ministry. Then there was a committee,a GoM headed by Pranab Mukherjee,that took a call on that. After legislating RTI,the government has time and again emphasised on the need for transparency and accountability,even when we were in Opposition.
*Kaushal Shroff: With the digitisation of cable TV,around 90 million consumers will be affected adversely,in terms of the expenditure on set top boxes,etc. Cable services may become more expensive. Do you think digitisaton will affect the rural consumer as well?
Not at all. You will be surprised that a million DTH connections are being taken every monththat means they are in the rural areas already. If you travel,you will see those little DTH dishes in rural areas. The numbers are going to reduce the cost of the set top boxes. TRAI also decided that these can be hired. We are going to have inter-portability. The tariff will not be more than Rs 150 a la carte choice. They will be fixing the price of each channel. So the consumer is going to be the principal beneficiary of this.
Amitabh Sinha: What are the chances of the Lokpal Bill getting passed in the winter session of Parliament?
We have said we want a strong Lokpal. Time and again,we have said that we want it in the winter session. The Chairman of the Standing Committee has said that it should be ready by the end of November,beginning of December. When my party has said that it wants a strong Lokpal,it will do everything in its power to see that it is passed. But every party will have to take an individual undertaking.
Amitabh Sinha: Is there a realistic chance of having it passed in one session?
The Standing Committee will send its recommendations to the Cabinet. The Cabinet will decide whether to accept it in toto,or whether there are any changes or amendments to be made. It will take a final call and then send it to Parliament as a Bill. Then it will be discussed. I have known Bills to be passed quickly. It depends on the parliamentarians. All the parties have to take a call. The Anna Hazare team says that all the parties have given it to them in writing that they will pass the Bill…so then they will pass it.
Maneesh Chhibber: You face assembly elections in Punjab next year. You are an MP from Punjab. What are the chances of the Congress returning to power in the state? Is Capt Amarinder Singh your choice for chief minister?
The ground reality in Punjab is that people in rural areas and in urban areas are hard-pressed looking for a way out from the present regime. This is not only a political statement but a fact. Look at how the position of Punjab has gone down in the last five years. Its a pity because it was a state that was always considered progressive. There has been no investment. Agriculture has not seen an improvement. On the leadership issue,Amarinder Singh is the president of state Congress party and I personally feel convinced that he is the best leader for Congress to take us to victory in February 2012.
Archna Shukla: What is your opinion of the Shunglu report on CWG? It has,allegedly,statements and factually incorrect data and figures and information.
Well,a high-powered committee was appointed by the Prime Minister to look into it,so I dont want to comment on that per se. But all that I learn from my colleagues,secretary downwards,is that the Shunglu Committee didnt interact at all with any of us while they were inquiring into issues that concern all of us. There was no effort made to contact anybody in the ministry. So some of us did feel that they were in too great a hurry to give the report.
Transcribed by Dipankar Ghose
*Students of Express Institute of Media Studies (EXIMS)