Not looking to regulate media

India's Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni talks about the ministry's responsibilities and plans to aid the media industry

The Times of India
Sunday, July 5, 2009

By Himanshi Dhawan

New Delhi --- I&B minister Ambika Soni speaks exclusively to TOI’s Himanshi Dhawan on her top priorities. She also indicates some help for a recession-hit media industry.

Excerpts:

Every UPA minister seems to have a 100-day agenda. What's yours?

My ministry is responsible for Prasar Bharati, DAVP, field publicity and other media wings. We will use them to give a thrust to the government's flagship programmes, be it health, NREGA, food security or issues related to women and children. Also on my priority is getting ready for world-class coverage of the Commonwealth Games and addressing policy issues FM III radio expansion and HITS (head-end in the sky broadcasting project).

I plan to set up a National Advisory Council that will access eminent people with talent and expertise to aid the ministry in its decision making. The council will be broken up into sub-groups to advise the ministry on media, broadcasting and film sectors. Their approach would reflect public opinion and professionalism.

Are you satisfied with the pace with which your ministry is preparing for the Commonwealth Games?

We are lagging behind a little and since I have come, I have been working at it. Prasar Bharati will be the host broadcaster and we have already issued an expression of interest for the international broadcaster. The process is on and we have to finalise on one entity. It is a unique challenge to showcase not just the Games to the world, but India and its people. We would like to build Brand India through these Games.

You have also taken over at a time when the Indian media industry has been hit hard by the economic slowdown. World over, governments help out their domestic media. What are you planning to do here?

Yes, private advertising has come down. (To help out) we have hiked DAVP advertisement rates by 10% and waived off the 15% agency commission. The special relief was applicable till June 30 but on the demand of the media industry we have asked for an extension from the finance ministry. We are hopeful that this will be agreed to.

But the DAVP rates are still well below commercial rates.

I have asked the DAVP rate structuring committee to put their heads together and see if we can further increase the advertising rates. Media industry representatives have expressed their concern that the rates are much lower than the current market rates and we are looking into that.

I believe that foreign direct investment in print could infuse capital without managements losing control of their companies. I will initiate a consultative process to see what can be done on this. I would like to dispel concerns that stakeholders may have.

What can you say about convergence? The same content will be made available on newspapers, TV, mobile, internet, but they are governed by different ministries. How will this work?

IT, telecom and I&B are linked ministries. My aim will be to make government processes keep pace with technological advancement. We cannot afford to lag behind in technology.

The policies on radio and HITS have been pending for some time...

The Cabinet note for radio FM III expansion has been prepared. Besides sports commentary, weather and other useful details, we are considering that news and current affairs sourced from Akashvani be allowed on FM radio. It is a very fast growing medium and we would like to encourage that growth. A cabinet note is also ready for HITS.

Prasar Bharati performance as public broadcaster continues to attract criticism. Can you change it?

Doordarshan must become commercially viable and be more competitive. Government can even pay DD commercial rates but I would like the public broadcaster to be more innovative and transparent. They should pay talent at market rates and attract private advertisers. Government programmes on health issues or issues like female foeticide can be packaged differently with a story line to engage audience interest. I have asked them to think out of the box.

Will you bring a broadcast bill and content code to Parliament?

I am not looking at any regulation on media actively. I met representatives of NBA and IBF and I feel that in this day and age, a self-regulatory mechanism is the best.

If there is again a 26/11 type of attack, will there be an organised dissemination of official information?

We are considering suggestions given by the NBA and IBF who felt that an empowered nodal group could be accessed for information in times of emergency. This empowered group could include my colleagues from vital ministries that can pass on correct information on the situation. I am still to discuss this suggestion with my colleagues in the cabinet.