Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, 27 April 2001

Report on the workshop held in association with the British Council and the Asian College of Journalism. The aim was to review issues of cultural impact and media policy posed by the advance of global communications technology, with particular reference to the broadcasting environment of southern India.



Welcome by Sashi Kumar, Asian College of Journalism, and David Page of the Media South Asia project, IDS.


Sadanand Menon ( Journalist); A.Natarajan ( former Station Director, DD Chennai);  Arulmozhi ( independent film maker)


D Vidya( Cable operator); K.P.Sunil ( lawyer and News Editor of Jaya TV); 
Dr V.Suresh ( PUCL); Narendra Kumar ( Lintas). 

Converging technologies and  policy choice 

N.Ram, Editor of Frontline; Mahalakhshmi Jayaram, Asian college of Journalism; Dr.Vijay Chandru, the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore; Sashi Kumar, Asian College of Journalism;

Mr. Surana of Surana & Surana (Advocates)

1000-1130: Culture and communication in the Satellite age - a South Indian perspective
Chair: Maalan, Director of News and Current Affairs, Sun TV
Panel: Sadanand Menon (Journalist), A.Natarajan (former Station Director, DD Chennai), Arulmozhi (independent film maker)

Sadanand Menon caricatured the Indian viewer as a ‘ couch potato eating potato chips’ and expressed his concern that ‘ television is introducing us to the impossibility of identity.’ He deplored the lack of influence of consumers on the media. He said there was a need for more participation in the media by smaller groups of people, so that they were able to make their own messages. Arulmozhi admitted that Doordarshan in its pre-commercial phase had found space for a variety of programmes, but he strongly condemned it for not reflecting the realities of South Indian culture, for being paternalistic, and for not allowing certain kinds of artists on the airwaves. A.Natarajan defended Doordarshan and its cultural programmes and argued that it had an important role to play in promoting national integration and family planning. It penetrated into small villages and still had the largest audience of any station in Tamil Nadu. Maalan spoke of the greater freedom of private channels like Sun TV to follow their own news agenda and to make programmes with a more local appeal. Natarajan admitted that DD had been hampered by lack of a clear policy on commercial competition. Sadanand Menon argued that the government’s handling of DD was ‘a distortion of democracy’ and he said something needed to be done about that.

1130-1145 Coffee

1145-1315 Cable and community in Tamilnadu
Chair Pritham Chakravarty
Panel: DVidya( Cable operator), K.P.Sunil ( lawyer and News Editor of Jaya TV), Dr V.Suresh ( PUCL), Narendra Kumar ( Lintas).

D.Vidya said that she had envisaged an in-house channel in 1993 but had not been able to develop it, partly because permission to offer a news channel was denied. She had also experienced financial constraints ( partly due to the fact that banks were not prepared to give loans for cable operations) and these had been pushed to the brink by the new competition in fibre optics. Vidya said that cable operators had had no say in the laying of fibre optic cables systems. They had not been able to put up their thoughts on what sort of network they wanted; they were only in a position to broadcast what was given to them. K.P.Sunil, News Editor of Jaya TV, criticised the recent process of consolidation in the cable sector, with Sumangali, a subsidiary of the SUN group, becoming the dominant player in Chennai’s cable systems. ‘It is unfortunate’ he said ‘ that what began with a great opening up is now witnessing a great closing down.’ Narendra Kumar of LINTAS, said Sumangali now controlled 90% of Chennai’s cable systems. But he said, unlike in Mumbai, there was no real local flavour. They had no news team and relied on films because they were cheaper. Elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, where there were more local networks, audiences fared better. Dr V Suresh of PUCL expressed his concerns about the legal milieu in which the media is operating, which he characterised as ‘an undeclared emergency’. Though the Courts had ruled in favour of freedom of the airwaves, there was no institution to enforce that right. There was a Freedom of Information Act but it was extremely ineffectual. It involved going to the courts with writ petitions and it was very time-consuming. Under the influence of liberalisation, the government was actually withdrawing from regulating capital markets and from some of its welfare functions. In the media, there was no accountability. Dr Suresh said in his opinion more bureaucracy was not the answer. ‘We need to find new principles of democratisation. We need to establish citizens’ rights in the media.’ he said. There were ‘a million mutinies’ going on and none of them was being reflected. The media is totally blanking them out’ he said. In the following discussion, several speakers argued that the mainstream media cannot be expected to reflect local concerns or deliver local services. The question was: how does a public forum develop in these circumstances?. Dr Suresh pointed to the significance of the ‘truly historic change’ which had taken place in Rajasthan as a result of the ‘right to information’ movement.

1315-1430 Lunch

1430-1600 Converging technologies and policy choice
Chair: N.Ram, Editor of Frontline
Mahalakhshmi Jayaram, Asian college of Journalism.
Dr.Vijay Chandru, the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore
Sashi Kumar, Asian College of Journalism
Mr. Surana of Surana & Surana (Advocates)

Introducing the afternoon session, N.Ram said that India had inherited the consequences of a lack of policy and of ad hoc policies in the media field. Even the new governmental focus on convergence had ‘come in handy as a means of further postponing progress on the Broadcasting Bill.’ There was a lot of talk of policy choice but in some sense there was no choice. N.Ram drew a contrast between the liberal atmosphere in which the press had operated since 1947 and the ‘less hospitable atmosphere’ in which the electronic media had developed. Ram criticised what he called the ‘illiberal and draconian provisions’ of the Convergence Bill and he welcomed the chance offered by the workshop to generate further public debate about it. Mahalakshmi Jayaram looked at some worrying aspects of the draft Indian legislation. She said Indian and Chinese legislation differs from European and South Korean/Singaporean legislation in that it controls access to infrastructure ( through licensing) as well as to content. She pointed out that before the Convergence bill had been passed, Reliance was already laying cable in Chennai for telecoms, broadcasting and the internet. It is implicit in the bill, she said, that it allows for data centralisation and monopolisation or vertical integration. Mahalakshmi Jayaram said that in the USA, the Americans had established very firm control over the regulation of technology but not of content, whereas elsewhere they wanted decentralisation and deregulation. She said ‘Achieving ascendancy in information is an objective of US foreign policy.’ and she argued that the Indian press needs to take up these issues on behalf of the Electronic media. Mr Surana, who had made a detailed study of the convergence bill, said that it would ‘play an important role in controlling communication’. He said previously Indians had been ‘political slaves’; now there was a possibility of them becoming ‘cultural slaves’. Examining the proposed structure, he said that it was designed to keep control in government hands. The CEO of the new Communication Commission of India would only exercise such powers
‘ as are delegated by the government’. Similarly, the Spectrum Manager, whose job was to allocate spectrum to the Commission, would be appointed by the Central government, as would all members of the Spectrum management committee. Mr Surana said in the interests of transparency, appointments should be made by an independent commission and the CEO should be given well defined powers. He pointed out that the Bill did not specifically rule out monopolies, nor did it include any clause to protect the rights of citizens. He also argued that a mechanism was needed to ensure that appeals could be handled within the Commission, without recourse to the High Court, which could often delay decisions for years. On a more technical note, Dr.Vijay Chandru of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, introduced the workshop to the ‘Simputer’ which had been developed by a small team working at the Institute. This simplified computer had been designed to make computer technology available at affordable rates to less wealthy members of society. The simputer was already being used to computerise parts of the postal service in Karnataka and this experiment had proved that it could be used by working people with limited knowledge of the technology. It was hoped that it would soon be in full-fledged industrial production.

After the presentations, there was a discussion of the merits of protectionism in the media field. Sadanand Menon argued that new technologies were being used to ‘denationalise nations, delocalise localities and depersonalise persons’. N.Ram was not convinced that the case for protectionism was as strong in the case of the internet as it was in the case of the press. In India, the social dispersal of newspapers was very limited, 40 per 1000 compared to 250 per 1000 in Europe. This was the basis of the argument for the protection of the Indian press, which was still valid, despite the BJP’s inclination to open up the market. ‘ We don’t want the Murdochs of this world monkeying about with our press tradition.’ said Ram.

1600 Tea

1700 Showing of ‘Michael Jackson comes to Manikganj’