In a move which could impact television channels run by close affiliates of political parties, the Union Government is considering the possibility of clamping down on surrogates in the media sector.

In a consultation paper on issues related to media ownership released last week, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has raised the problem of surrogate entities being used to bypass its existing ban on political, religious and governmental bodies entering the broadcast media space.

“While recommending the disqualification of certain entities for entry into broadcasting and distribution activities, TRAI’s basic intention was to ensure that power of the media is not exploited by such entities for swaying public opinion in their favour, or for promoting vested political interests and propagating ideologies,” says the paper.

“There is a need to address the problem of surrogates, whereby a disqualified entity may wield media power through another entity over which it has influence, and which does not suffer from general disqualification for entry into the media sector. Grant of license/permission to such a surrogate entity may defeat the very purpose of putting general disqualifications in place.”

TRAI pointed out that other international regulators — for example, the U.K.’s Ofcom — prohibit such surrogates, as persons “subject to undue influence by an otherwise disqualified person.”

The paper expressed worry about the “increasing trend of influence of political parties/politicians in the media sector. Political parties either directly or indirectly through surrogates control newspapers, TV channels and TV distribution systems.”

TRAI observed that such a scenario is more prevalent in regional markets, with channels directly or indirectly named after political leaders or parties, and complaints of cable distributors using political backing to extend their monopolies.

“In such a situation, the broadcasters are at the mercy of these politically backed entities for distribution of their channels in that region,” warns the TRAI paper. “Such entities may practically throttle content selectively to suit their own agenda as well as fetter competition in the market, depriving consumers of the benefits of effective competition.”

TRAI has asked for stakeholders to comment on whether “the licensor [that is, the government] or the regulator should be empowered to disqualify [or recommend for disqualification] a person who is subject to undue influence by a disqualified person.”

The paper also deals with the thorny issue of cross-media ownership, and the danger of a diversity of views being throttled by corporates who own or control multiple outlets, sometimes across media. It lists out the business houses which have stakes across media segments and distribution platforms. For example, the Sun and Essel (that is, Zee) groups have a presence in print, television, FM radio, DTH and cable, while others such as STAR and the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani group have stakes in at least four of those five segments.

It points out that “the inherent conflict of interest which arises from uncontrolled ownership” can lead to problems such as paid news, (ii) corporate and political lobbying by the media and biased analysis and forecasting. In what seems to be a reference to the 2G scam, TRAI notes: “Not very long ago, the story of how corporate houses connived with the media in an attempt to influence political decision making to distort the market in a core infrastructure sector, engaged the nation’s attention.”

TRAI has asked for specific feedback on how media ownership and control can be measured and how it should be restricted. Comments from stakeholders are welcome until March 8, while counter comments must be submitted by March 15.

  • Being used to bypass TRAI’s ban on certain bodies entering the broadcast media space

  • Intention was to ensure that power of media is not exploited by them for swaying public opinion