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Sushma heir sleeps on uplink ‘hot potato’

New Delhi, Feb. 11: Sushma Swaraj’s decision to ask the Union Cabinet for advice on whether or not to allow fully foreign-owned news channels to uplink from India has turned into a political hot potato, so much so that her successor in the Union information and broadcasting ministry, Ravi Shankar Prasad, would much rather the issue is not raked up.

The new minister is still “studying” the matter before the ministry formulates its opinion, sources in the ministry said. For the moment, some kind of a cap on foreign equity is being favoured.

However, there is a strong body of opinion in favour of maintaining status quo. This means that the ministry will not distinguish between news channels that are fully foreign-owned and other news channels and, therefore, a separate policy would not be called for.

The ministry note that was circulated had outlined the following four options: restricting FDI in news channels to 26 per cent, 49 per cent, 74 per cent or not having any bar at all.

Swaraj, who has since moved on from the information and broadcasting ministry to take over the health and parliamentary affairs portfolios, had sent the note to the ministries of home affairs, external affairs, defence, telecommunications and finance, seeking their opinion.

Swaraj’s decision to specially brief the Cabinet was taken in the wake of an application from Rupert Murdoch’s Virgin Island-registered STAR News in October last year for a licence to uplink for its 24-hour news channel. Since then, CNBC India, too, has applied for a similar licence.

Sources in the ministry said the responses from the other ministries are only now being received and their views are “divergent”, an euphemism that disguises a sharp division in the Cabinet. Its officials were half-expecting this and had, in the note circulated, outlined four possible options.

It is understood that only the telecommunications ministry — where, too, Pramod Mahajan has made way for Arun Shourie — has found the suggestion to permit 100 per cent foreign news channels to uplink acceptable. The ministry favours a status quo in the policy on uplinking.

The ministry of defence has decided it would not comment on the implications of the financial aspect of the subject and will restrict its observations to whether uplinking can pose a security threat. It has sought the opinion of army and air headquarters, which have not yet been received and forwarded.

Information and broadcasting ministry sources said the feedback from intelligence agencies which had been asked for their opinion by the home ministry is that uplinking by a foreign news channel will pose no more or no less a problem than uplinking by other news channels.

Before formulating its opinion, the information and broadcasting ministry was trying to ensure that it did not invite allegations of inter-media discrimination. Last July, the Union Cabinet permitted FDI in the news category for the print media up to 26 per cent. Should the cap be raised for television, there would immediately be a demand that the restriction for the print media, too, should be lifted.

Imposing a bar on foreign equity holding in television channels can send the industry itself into a tizzy because there are several channels with FDI, such as Zee, even if they are not fully foreign-owned. More than 70 television channels uplink from the country. A new policy can prompt a restructuring of equity for some of these channels.

The policy will immediately impact on STAR News, whose contract with NDTV runs out in March. STAR News is slated to go on air from April 1. It has been carrying out dummy runs.

Prannoy Roy’s NDTV is also slated to launch an English news and a Hindi news channel from April.

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