Jayalalitha’s Arasu Cable in trouble as TRAI says no government agencies allowed

Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s pet project Arasu Cable is likely to get into trouble as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has come out strongly against allowing any government agency or company to enter the broadcasting space.

In its clarification to the government given today, the TRAI said any government company or agency that has been given any distribution license (including cable TV) must be “an appropriate exit route” and not allowed to continue.

The recommendations are likely to cause a flutter in Tamil Nadu where the Jayalalithaa government started Arasu Cable, a government-owned cable network, to offer cheap cable TV to the citizens. However, many have pointed out that the cable network may have been started to counter the influence of the Maran brothers in the local cable TV industry. The Marans are closely associated with Jayalalithaa’s political rival, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) party.

Dayanidhi Maran, the elder son of DMK leader Murasoli Maran, runs Sun Cable Vision (SCV), the biggest cable operator/content supplier in Tamil Nadu.

Both the DMK and Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK have several TV channels, including those providing entertainment and exclusive news and information. However, both are worried that if the distribution channel — cable or DTH — is controlled entirely by the other, their own TV channels may not reach the audience. The worry is seen as the primary motivation for Jayalalithaa to start a government-owned cable TV operator.

Interestingly, Jayalalithaa may use TRAI’s recommendations to attack her rival as well, as the recommendations have again reminded the government that no person, body or company associated with a political organization should be allowed to enter the broadcasting business. The TRAI further asked the government to implement these prohibitions.

“An individual who is an officer of a .. body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature,” cannot be allowed to own or control TV channels or cable networks, TRAI reminded the government in its recommendation today.

The prohibition also applies to any company in which such a person owns more than a five per cent interest, TRAI noted.

“The Authority would recommend that, pending enactment of any new legislation on broadcasting, the disqualifications stated above should be implemented through executive decision by incorporating the disqualifications into Rules, Regulations and Guidelines as necessary,” it said.

The issue was referred to the TRAI after Arasu Cable asked for a new license for the Chennai zone, but was kept waiting by the new Information and Broadcasting Minister Maneesh Tiwari.
The I&B ministry has also been getting several requests from other government agencies, such as the central ministry of human resource development, state government of Punjab, state government of Andhra Pradesh, state government of Kerala and the government of Gujarat to start new channels or distribution platforms.

Quoting the Supreme Court and the Sarkaria Commission report, the TRAI said all of them should be rejected as the entry of the government into media is likely to endanger the citizen’s right to receive unbiased news and information.

“Government control, which in effect means the control of the political party or parties in power for the time being. Such control is bound to colour and in some cases, may even distort the news, views and opinions expressed through the media. It is not conducive to free expression of contending viewpoints and opinions which is essential for the growth of a healthy democracy,” the TRAI quoted the Supreme Court as saying.

The Sarkaria Commission, which was tasked with the duty of figuring out appropriate policies for the broadcast sector, too had asked that governments should be kept out of the media sector. In case of states especially, it had noted, a channel owned by the local government and controlled by local parties may sometimes be used to promote regionalism.

“..In this country where, as we have emphasised elsewhere, parochialism, chauvinism, casteism and communalism are pervasive and are actively made use of by powerful groups, if uncontrolled use of these media is allowed, it may promote centrifugal tendencies endangering the unity and integrity of the nation,” it had noted.

As such, the TRAI said, in effect, that the central government need not have asked it again whether government bodies should be given licenses or not, as it had already clarified, in 2008, that they should not be.

It pointed out that there was no need to create a distinction between governments and government bodies in this regard.

“Ministries/Departments of the Central and State Governments and, by extension, clearly connote and include public sector undertakings of such Governments, companies owned by such Governments as well as joint ventures. There should be little doubt therefore that the spirit of the recommendations of November, 2008 extends to all such organs and entities of the Central and State Governments,” it said in today’s recommendation.