Radio faces Mann ki blast

Sumi Sukanya

New Delhi, Nov. 4: The Narendra Modi government is preparing to crack down on community radio stations for failing to broadcast the Prime Minister’s monthly radio programme, Mann ki Baat, and for airing “anti-government” views.

The Union information and broadcasting ministry, after a scrutiny of the content of some 30 community radio stations in the National Capital Region, has found broadcasts from most of the stations “objectionable”, officials said.

“These radio stations that provide last-mile connectivity with local communities have been airing political views which are anti-regime, obscene songs and unparliamentary language,” a senior official in the broadcasting division of the ministry said.

“On top of it, these stations have also almost never broadcast the PM’s monthly radio programme despite repeated advisories,” added the official.

Community radio stations, mostly owned by NGOs, operate through low-power FM transmitters and can be received within a range of 10-15km. Local communities are the target audience.

A director-level official said the issue of objectionable content had been referred to an inter-ministerial committee and a decision on “violations” would be taken soon.

Private radio stations can decide their own content so long as it does not violate the programming code. They are not allowed to broadcast news or politics-based programmes, which only government-owned All India Radio can.

But all private radio stations and news channels have been “advised” by the Modi government to broadcast Mann ki Baat, aired on AIR. Mann ki Baat, a show on which Modi usually speaks about current affairs or government schemes, is put in the category of government and administration programmes.

Sources said this was possibly the first time such an advisory had been sent to private radio stations by the Union government.

“We have been receiving reminders from the ministry to air the PM’s radio broadcast and to publicise his pet schemes such as Beti Bachao and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan but many stations have not been airing that because we are not the government’s mouthpiece,” said a community radio station proprietor who requested anonymity.

Senior executives with radio stations say they should have the freedom to determine their content as long as it does not violate programming codes.

The owner of another radio station in western Uttar Pradesh said people invited for radio talk shows speak their minds. “If someone does not toe the government line, we cannot be penalised for that in a democracy – the way we are being openly threatened is horrible,” the station owner said.

The ministry had about six months ago asked the community radio stations to submit CDs of all content aired for scrutiny.

While a radio station cannot be penalised for not broadcasting a certain show or for airing views critical of the government, ambiguity in the programming code guidelines leaves enough room for manipulation.

Licences of the radio stations can be cancelled for “violation” of the code or ways can be found to exercise more control over the sector, the ministry official said.

Broadcast media executives said that among India’s 185 community stations, at least 20 were defunct because of financial issues. Many have cut broadcast hours and are struggling to survive.

“The sector is on the verge of dying a slow death because of the government’s indifferent stand and delays in providing any financial or technical support,” said Archana Kapoor, a member of the Community Radio Association.

Of the Rs 100 crore announced in the Union budget last year as innovations grant for community radio, not a single rupee has been released, she said. Ten stations had been “selected” for aid to buy equipment but the finance ministry refused to grant the funds, saying there was lack of clarity on the stations’ licences.

After the 10-year permission granted to several stations ran out in March this year, the information and broadcasting ministry is yet to decide on the matter.

The community radio centres can air five minutes of advertisements each hour – mostly government advertisements – at a rate of Rs 4 per second, fixed by the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity. But even those payments have been erratic.

A Right to Information application filed by N.A. Shah Ansari, who runs Radio Namaska in Odisha, has revealed that the directorate owes around Rs 2 crore to various radio stations across the country and has not released any money for the past several months.

“The situation is grim,” said Vinod Pavrala, the president of the Community Radio Forum and Unesco chair on community media at the University of Hyderabad. “The government is not doing enough – the funds are not getting released and there are mutiple issues with the grant of permission – this is a sector struggling hard to survive.”

Earlier this year, the government had asked all radio stations to send their content to the ministry on a monthly basis but withdrew the order after strong resistance from the sector and members of the civil society.