New Delhi, Oct. 21: The Election Commission has put public broadcaster Doordarshan’s ambitious news channel — sarcastically referred to by critics as the “poll channel” — under the scanner. It has sought an explanation from the Centre on its rationale.
DD News is slated to be launched from November 3, replacing DD Metro, the satellite and terrestrial channel from the public broadcaster that is aimed primarily at major urban markets.
The Election Commission forwarded a sheaf of documents — mostly representations from producers on DD Metro — to the Union information and broadcasting ministry. The memoranda question the logic of shutting down a profitable channel and replacing it with what the producers have alleged will be a propaganda mouthpiece for the government at the time of elections. Assembly elections are to be held in five states by December 1.
The producers alleged that the decision to re-start a DD News channel is “political” and will be a drain on the resources of Doordarshan and its parent, the Prasar Bharati.
Sources in the I&B confirmed that the poll panel has sought “clarifications” on the DD News channel. But they insisted that the commission has not yet asked for the launch of the channel to be either deferred or cancelled. It has sought the factual position and would base its decision after going through the charges and the version presented by the I&B ministry.
On October 3, the Union cabinet accepted the Prasar Bharati board’s recommendation to launch DD News. The channel will be the only one with a terrestrial reach that makes it more accessible than its competitors in cable television. “The channel will provide unbiased and fair reports of live news as they occur,” the government has claimed.
The cabinet also cleared Rs 54 crore as annual recurring expenditure for the channel in the first year plus non-plan grants of Rs 20 crore.
The I&B ministry has forwarded the questions to the Prasar Bharati. It is understood that the ministry believes:
•The proposal for DD News was taken up in June/July — before polls were announced — and therefore it does not violate the model code of conduct
• The decision was taken by the Prasar Bharati which is an autonomous body on the basis of their understanding of the television viewership market, and
• The issue would not even have come up to the cabinet if it were not for a request for funds
The ministry/the Prasar Bharati were also likely to point out that complainants included producers of programmes on DD Metro who were acting out of fear of financial loss if the channel was shut down.
Within the Prasar Bharati, however, there is sense of quiet satisfaction over the panel’s questioning of the channel. Prasar Bharati officials involved in its launch had told the government they would need at least three months after funds were made available to broadcast the 24-hour channel.
The Prasar Bharati had initially looked for a launch in early 2004. But under pressure from the government they prepared for the launch on November 23, the founding day of Prasar Bharati. When the cabinet cleared the funds, the government further brought ahead the launch date and announced it will broadcast from November 3, well in time for the Assembly polls. The officials are also miffed over the government seeking to bring in television personalities from private channels to shape DD News.