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I&B minister not in favour of ad cap, bats for raising FDI in news

MUMBAI: Indicating that the government is seriously considering doing away with the 12-minute ad cap rule, Minister of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) Arun Jaitley said on Sunday that the matter is best left to the consumers to decide rather than government dictating terms to the industry.

“It will be music to the ears of media persons. My ministry a couple of years ago came out with a statutory law that no channel will telecast advertisements beyond so many minutes. I have been struggling, in my own mind, since then as to how this meets the challenge of Article 19(1)A,” Jaitley said while delivering the first Justice JS Verma Memorial lecture on the ‘Freedom & Responsibility of Media’.

Broadcasters have been following the 10+2 ad cap from October 2013. However, news, music and regional broadcasters have challenged the ruling in the Delhi High Court, which has directed TRAI not to take coercive action against the petitioners till final orders.

In fact, Jaitley’s predecessor Prakash Javadekar had stated that the free-to-air (FTA) channels will be exempted from adhering to the ad cap.

“Is the government supposed to tell newspapers and channels as to how much advertisement and how much news? If viewers or readers find it monotonous, they have the power to switch on something else. The government getting into the business of how much news and how much ads, in my personal view, is a bad precedent to lay down,” he added.

Jaitley also said that not all channels are able to sustain themselves because of flawed business model. He also said that the situation will only accentuate further for newspapers and news channels as more and more people consume news on handheld devices.

He also reckoned that this situation will lead to more consolidation in the media sector with bigger players becoming more powerful. “Like in other industries where a lot of consolidation, takeovers, mergers and acquisitions take place, in media too people with deeper pockets would tend to acquire the medium. That would also lead to conflict of interest situation in many cases,” Jaitley asserted.

News channels, Jaitley said, faced an even uphill task as they have to allocate a large chunk of their resources towards paying carriage fee to distribution platforms like cable and DTH, which in turn affects their ability to invest in news gathering.

“News channels face an even bigger challenge because they have to divide resources for news gathering and news distribution. Cost of news distribution has become phenomenally higher. This compels news channels to cut costs as far as news gathering is concerned,” he asserted.

Touching on the issue of cross-media ownership, Jaitley said that there is a need to have a robust debate. He also mentioned the fact that all mature democracies have some or the other form of restriction on cross-media holdings.

“Most jurisdictions the world over ban cross-holdings in the media. If you own newspapers, you can’t own channels. If you own channels, you can’t own medium through which the channel is distributed. Some jurisdictions like the US have very strict disciplines on this. We have no such restrictions,” he noted.

Illustrating further, he said, “Should all these mediums including the medium to communicate be vested in the same individual? How is larger public interest going to be impacted by this? I think the time has come for this debate in the media circles and judicial circles at some stage. Certainly thereafter as far as Parliament is concerned, it has to be initiated so that Indian society can form a mature view on these kinds of restrictions. I am sure the kind of maturity Indian society shows in dealing with free speech and the rights, this debate will also evolve and lead to a conclusion.”

It must be noted here that the TRAI has already submitted its recommendations on the matter with the ministry wherein it has asked for putting checks on corporate ownership of media. It has also recommended an outright ban on government and religious bodies from entering the media sector.

On the issue of FDI in news media, Jaitley said that the advent of technology has rendered foreign direct investment restriction in news meaningless as foreign news channels and newspapers can be accessed by anyone over the internet.

“Technology has obliterated the distinction between Indian and foreign media. A 100 per cent foreign-owned channel can be beamed to India from outside. Similarly, the physical newspaper might not be available in India, but it can be accessed on the internet,” he explained.

Stopping short of saying that the FDI limit in news media should be increased, Jaitley said, “So do these restrictions have any meaning? Should we allow in this day and age where we are faced with an uncertain financial model for more foreign equity to come in? This is still a wide and open debate.”

The minister further mentioned that media responsibility was critical in addressing matters related to security, social tension, privacy of the individual and the issues that involved a sub judice connotation.

Media needed to avoid the conduct of parallel trials in reporting matters that were sub judice. He also mentioned that constructive deliberations on all issues relating to media freedom and responsibility needed to be initiated among all stakeholders.

He also said that the government would soon come out with norms for media coverage of terror-related operations.

“Our security agencies and the Ministry of Defence are clearly of the view that this cannot be allowed. And, therefore, during the limited duration when the security operation is on, a very strict discipline on the kind of reporting which is to take place from the place of the incident will have to be maintained,” Jaitley said. “This issue is under serious and very advanced consideration of the government,” he said.

Former finance secretary Arvind Mayaram had suggested 26–49 per cent FDI in sectors such as print, news television media and FM radio.