TRAI set to regulate corporate control of media

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KHULLARNew Delhi, June 19;The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is all set to recommend the creation of an ‘institutional buffer between corporate owners and newspaper management’ to the government. TRAI, which is also the regulator for the broadcasting industry, will also suggest ways to restrict cross-media ownership in line with practices in ‘most other established democracies.’

TRAI chairman Rahul Khullar told The Hindu his recommendations would be based on the principle that corporate ownership of media must be separated from editorial management, as “the media serves public interest”.

Mr. Khullar said he had no problem with corporates investing in or owning media houses for profits. “But the problem arises when the corporate wants to abuse the media it controls to project a coloured point of view for vested interests. There is conflict of interest here.”

Mr. Khullar plans to recommend a special organisational structure in which the corporate owner — who may have multifarious business interests — would have only a financial interest in the company, restricted to owning of shares. The editorial operations would be done under a different structure where the corporate owner would have little say.

TRAI has earlier flagged the issue of a “growing number of undesirables, including builders and politicians” acquiring media interests. Mr. Khullar pointed out that even Vice President Hamid Ansari had spoken out about the “paid news menace” recently.

“The idea is to create an institutionalised buffer between the corporate owner and newspaper management to ensure the independence of TV channels and the print media to articulate impartial, free and fair editorial policy,” said Mr. Khullar. He, however, admitted that the process was still “in the works”. The “creative challenge” for TRAI was evolving the precise design.

Recommendations on corporate control will form a part of TRAI’s suggestions to the government on cross-media ownership. In a consultation paper on the issue, the authority also flagged the issue of certain media houses having interests in all forms — television, print, and radio — which led to “horizontal integration,” and asked whether there ought to be restrictions.

Mr. Khullar categorically rejected objections from media houses that any such restriction would violate the right to freedom of speech under Article 19 of the Constitution: “All robust democracies have some restrictions on cross-media ownership. This is absolutely necessary to maintain the plurality and diversity of media. Let us see what form it takes.”

TRAI is understood to be contemplating a “two out of three rule”, whereby a media house could have interests in two of three mediums among print, TV or radio. But no decision has been taken yet.

It plans to submit a report in eight to 10 weeks. Over the past few months, it has held open house discussions on the issue across the country, sought submissions on its consultation paper and spoken to stakeholders. It submitted a report on the issue in 2009. But since no action was taken and the situation had changed significantly, the government asked the regulator to come out with a fresh set of recommendations last year.

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