No government has so far shown the will to grant full financial and administrative autonomy to Prasar Bharati, which was created by law in 1997. On paper an autonomous organisation, it largely remains a subordinate office of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The question of Prasar Bharati’s autonomy has surfaced again, with its Chief Executive Officer, Jawahar Sircar, writing to the Ministry protesting against the broadcaster having little say in its own functioning. He has contended that his suggestions on the posting and transfer of Indian Information Service officers in the news divisions of Akashvani and Doordarshan have been ignored. With electronic media organisations expanding exponentially in recent years, it may sound strange that there should be any debate now on the autonomy of public broadcasters in the country. However, it cannot be denied that public service broadcasting remains relevant because All India Radio and Doordarshan have the widest geographical spread in terms of coverage. To a large extent, its radio and television wings have been served by competent professionals, but the impression of government control remains strong. Their cultural programmes have been of high quality but news programming, though free of sensationalism, is often seen as dull and hackneyed.
Conferring administrative autonomy in such a manner that its professional head has the final authority in the recruitment and deployment of personnel in the news division will have to be a key aspect of reforming the institution. Several committees have looked into aspects of Prasar Bharati’s autonomy, but there has been very little headway in putting into practice the ideal of keeping the government at arm’s length. The first step, as noted by the latest panel, the Sam Pitroda Committee, is to start seeing Prasar Bharati as a ‘public broadcaster’ rather than as a government broadcaster. It should be run as a professionally managed body, and its oversight handed over, as the panel recommended, to a dedicated parliamentary committee. The corporation is now monitored by the parliamentary committee on Information Technology. Further, it has often been noted that the vast assets owned by AIR and Doordarshan are still under government control and it is time these were transferred to Prasar Bharati. The new government would do well to deliver on its intention to strengthen its editorial independence as well as its accountability on the lines of globally renowned public broadcasters. Amidst the changing dynamics of information dissemination and consumption, public media institutions should not suffer from bureaucratic control, but instead have infusion of skills, technology and autonomy.