With Prasar Bharati Corporation chief executive officer Jawahar Sircar kicking up a storm over the autonomy of the public broadcaster, Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi on Saturday kept the controversy alive by tweeting that he was saddened “to see our national TV channel struggling to maintain its professional freedom”.
Using Twitter to greet “journalist friends” on World Press Freedom Day, Mr. Modi said: “Free press is a democracy’s cornerstone & must be preserved in letter & spirit. On days such as this, I feel very sad to see our National TV channel struggling to maintain its professional freedom. We have witnessed the horrors of Emergency when freedom of press & freedom of expression were suppressed. It is a blot on our democracy.”
His tweets on free press stoked the long-standing debate over the autonomy of the public broadcaster which has not died down even after the enactment of the Prasar Bharati Act with a view to unshackling Doordarshan and All India Radio from government control. The issue was prised open yet again this week after it became apparent that Doordarshan News had edited out portions of its interview with Mr. Modi though the broadcaster insists it was done to fit a 54-minute interview into a half-hour time slot.
The controversy further snowballed after Mr. Sircar blamed Minister of State for Information & Broadcasting Manish Tewari of blocking “more operational autonomy” to Prasar Bharati. The two have had differences in the past even as Mr. Sircar is being accused by his detractors of speaking out this time in the hope of currying favour with a BJP dispensation which is widely expected to form the next government.
Reacting to this, a former Shiv Sena member of the Rajya Sabha Pritish Nandy tweeted: “For those who don’t know, CEO Prasar Bharati is a statutory post, five years fixed. So Mr. Sircar need not curry favours with any sarkar.” Mr. Nandy was also member of the Consultative Committee for the I&B Ministry when he was Rajya Sabha member.
Though Prasar Bharati autonomy has been advocated by all political parties when out of power, a flashback into the 16-and-a-half years of the Act’s implementation is testimony to the way successive governments including the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance have sought to use it to their advantage.
The current government had set up an expert committee in 2013 under Sam Pitroda, Advisor to the Prime Minister on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations, to review the institutional framework of Prasar Bharati including its relationship with the government and funding. The committee submitted its report in January this year in which it recommended amendments to the Act to “impart genuine and effective autonomy” to Prasar Bharati.