The radio is an inevitable part of the ordinary Indian’s life. From broadcasting crop updates for farmers to soothing jingles to tide over the morning blues and live traffic alerts for the hassled commuter, the radio has been an inseparable friend for many.
Now, if the Supreme Court has its way, private FM radio stations will have an essential role to play in the world’s largest democracy — dissemination of news. They will have to exercise the right to inform with fairness and without prejudice and the right to counter and question the government’s version of news.
On Friday, a Bench of Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar and Justice D.Y. Chandrachud picked up from a plethora of pending public interest litigation petitions a 2013 one filed by Common Cause for a judicial declaration to end the monopoly of the Prasar Bharati Corporation, which owns and operates All India Radio, over news broadcasting and current affairs programmes.
The Bench asked why there should be a continuing prohibition on FM radio stations and community radios from airing their own news and current affairs on a par with private TV channels and the print media.
The court asked why the government wanted to control news on radio, which covers almost the entire population, even the rural masses, as per official estimates. The government’s prohibition, Common Cause argued, was in clear violation of the Supreme Court’s landmark verdict in 1995 in the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting vs Cricket Association of Bengal . The apex court then held that “airwaves are public property to be used to promote public good and expressing a plurality of views, opinions and ideas”.
“Policy Guidelines and of the Grant of Permission Agreements framed by the government which prohibit private FM radio stations and community radio stations from broadcasting their own news and current affairs programmes are clearly violative of the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution. It is submitted that the right to freedom of speech and expression also includes the right to information, which encompasses diverse interpretations of news and current affairs,” civil rights advocates Prashant Bhushan and Kamini Jaiswal submitted before the Bench in the present case.
The court, in turn, directed the government to explain, in four weeks, the series of orders systematically passed between 2008 and 2013 to gag private radio from airing their own news and current affairs broadcasts.
On November 28, 2008, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India recommended that for private FM radio broadcasting Phase III, FM broadcasters “may only be permitted to broadcast news, taking content from AIR, Doordarshan, authorised TV news channels, United News of India, Press Trust of India and any other authorised news agency without any substantive change in the content”.
On July 25, 2011, a minor change was made under Phase III policy guidelines for FM to allow broadcast of FM radio news bulletins of AIR without any addition or modification.
During the third National Community Radio Sammelan on February 10, 2013, the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry said that community radio stations would not be allowed to broadcast news for some time to come. As a stopgap measure, they could be permitted to re-transmit unedited AIR news.
The policy document on radio was probably the only one in which the government did not stop at regulatory compliance, but attempted to prescribe what kinds of programming should be broadcast, Common Cause submitted.
The NGO argued that no other democratic country had similar curbs.
“None of the USA’s 14,000-plus radio stations, the 2,000-odd stations in Spain or the 1,000-plus stations each in Italy, France, Greece and Australia are barred from airing news and cultural affairs. In fact, many stations are solely news channels, including specialised ones for community radio,” the petition argued.