As state and general elections draw near, it is no surprise that political parties will want to go on the airwaves with their own channels. And with the market for spirituality growing by the day, religious organisations are bound to try their hand at harvesting souls. But not if the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has anything to do with it. It has recommended that these bodies be barred from floating their own channels and instead space be made for programming which serves the public good. A noble intention but then is it really Trai’s business to decide on what constitutes public good? It should at best lay down guidelines for content to ensure that nothing goes against public decency or probity. Of course, as Trai has elaborated, if any channel is seeking funds from the proposed public service broadcast obligation fund that it seeks to set up, it will be bound by rules determined by Trai. Otherwise, the field should be open to anyone with adequate resources and who adheres by the rules and regulations laid down by Trai. If the regulator pushes this rather draconian recommendation through, there is nothing to stop political and religious organisations from using other channels to push their message or ideology. This would put them beyond Trai’s ambit and that would defeat the very purpose of the recommendations.
Trai’s efforts to get state governments to stay out of the distribution network are also flawed. Our ever-innovative political class will simply do this through backdoor channels where Trai cannot touch them. In other democracies, notably the US, there is no bar on any individual or organisation owing television channels or stations provided they stay within the law. At a time when all barriers on information and entertainment are vanishing, thanks to the Net, this retrograde step on the part of Trai seems a throwback to the days of the licence-permit raj where the State and its myriad wings would determine what you would watch and who would bring it to you.
Trai also seems to have exceeded its brief in determining that political parties may have ‘reasonable access’ to broadcasting channels. Surely, that is for the channel in question to decide. If Trai’s efforts are to ensure that political and religious bodies don’t misuse the freedoms available, it certainly is going about it in an ill-informed and ham-handed manner.