After an investigation, India’s Supreme Court has asked the Indian Government to explain its decision to prevent FM stations from airing their own news.

Between 2008 and 2013 the Indian government refused to allow FM and community radio stations to air their own news and current affairs programming, only authorising them to deliver news in the same format as the government-owned All India Radio news bulletins.

In 2008, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India said that private FM broadcasters “may only be permitted to broadcast news, taking content from AIR, Doordarshan, authorised TV news channels, United News of India, Press Trust of India and any other authorised newsagency without any substantive change in the content”.

The inquiry

Wanting to shed light on this decision, in 2013 the NGO Common Cause filed a public interest litigation which led to the Supreme Court’s investigation.

“There have been three rounds of licensing for FM channels so far. At the last count, there were 245 private FM channels and 145 community radio stations in the country. But none of them [are] allowed to broadcast [their] own news and current affairs programmes,” the NGO litigation read.

Common Cause argued that radio services reach a vast majority of the population and are much more accessible than other media formats, especially for those living in rural areas. The government’s decision also appears to be against the law, the NGO affirmed, and violates the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court indeed stated in 1995 that “airwaves are public property to be used to promote public good and expressing a plurality of views, opinions and ideas”. Yet with this government interference, such a plurality of views can hardly be guaranteed.

The petition was successful in taking the case further. Last Thursday, the Supreme Court asked the Information and Broadcasting Minister for clarifications on why there has been such tight control of radio news.

Waiting for a response

Radio professionals welcomed this decision as positive news for the radio industry. “We have been saying forever that radio is being needlessly singled out on news. Radio companies are responsible media companies. We go through enormous security checks and give massive entry fees to the government. There is absolutely no reason to deny us the right to do news,” said Prashant Panday, chief executive at Entertainment Network India Ltd (ENIL), which operates the FM Radio Mirchi.

The Indian ministry will have to reply in four weeks, giving an explanation to the series of restraining orders that took place between 2008 and 2013.

By Marta Catalano

Header image: Parliament of India. Credits: Kartikeya Kaul/Creative Commons