Government seeks curbs over media dominance

The telecom and media regulator TRAI has taken the first step in imposing ownership controls in India’s fast-growing media sector.

In a consultation paper on ‘cross media holdings’, the TRAI has suggested different approaches, all of which will make sure that a single media house will not be able to have extensive or dominating presence across print, broadcasting and radio.

The move is likely to have implications for media groups such as the Chennai-based Sun TV Network, Bennet Coleman & Co (which owns the Times of India), Zee Essel Group and possibly for the Network18 group.

TRAI’s move follows a request by the government of India to relook at the issue of certain media houses becoming too powerful by simultaneously operating newspapers, TV channels, radio stations and dominating even the online news category.

In its recommendations four years ago, the TRAI had weighed in against putting in restrictions on the same company owning outlets in different segments such as broadcasting, print etc.. However, the government has sought a relook at the issue.

This time, going by the tone of the consultation paper, the regulator too seems inclined to impose rules to prevent any single media house from becoming very powerful.

“There have been several instances reported of leading news channels/news-dailies exploiting the power of the media in collusion with corporate houses and politicians in lobbying for influencing policy decisions to favour such corporate houses,” the TRAI said.

“Media outlets owned/controlled by industrialists or business houses have it in their power to propagate biased analysis or forecasts to further their business interests or harm the interests of business opponents, to the detriment of the interests of investors and other stakeholders,” it said.

It also added media houses may propagate manipulated exit polls, wrong political analyses etc.. and try to seek to influence the outcome of elections and affect public opinion.

The Indian media has, in recent years, been accused of being “sensationalist” and of creating unrest and protests in Indian society by projecting negative or sensational news items repeatedly.

It said that interested parties may be paying TV channels to broadcast ‘news’ to favor their interests. “When such paid news is published or broadcast, the reader or the viewer is misled into believing that an advertisement or a sponsored feature is a news story that is truthful, fair and objective,” it pointed out.

To prevent media houses from becoming too powerful and dominating public opinion, the TRAI suggested several alternatives.

The first to prevent a media house that is strong in one sector, such as newspapers, from extending its ownership into other areas such as broadcasting, radio and online.

The other method suggested was to impose restrictions on a media company only if it is proven to have strong market share in a single market — such as, for example, the Tamil media market. The total share would be calculated by using all the media properties of the company – including TV, newspapers etc..

“Would it be appropriate to restrict any entity having ownership/ control in a media segment of a relevant market with a market share of more than a threshold level (say 20%) in that media segment from acquiring or retaining ownership/ control in the other media segments of the relevant market,” TRAI said.