New Delhi, Oct. 17: The Supreme Court today hinted at allowing private FM and community radio stations to broadcast their own news and current affairs programmes, a privilege so far enjoyed only by the Centre-run All India Radio (AIR).
“Only TV channels are allowed to broadcast news. Radio channels have access to every village, nook and corner. We will examine the issue. We will impose some conditions…. (before granting permission),” a bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam and Justice Ranjan Gogoi said.
The court made the observation while issuing a notice to the Centre on a PIL seeking permission for private FM and community radio stations to air news.
It agreed to examine the constitutional validity of the restriction imposed by the government on such operators after the PIL, filed by NGO Common Cause, alleged the curbs violated Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of expression and speech.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the NGO, argued that like TV channels, private radio stations be allowed to broadcast news as this medium is far more accessible to people and radio stations can be set up with relatively smaller investments.The court appeared to accept the point. “You rightly mentioned that radio is accessible to everybody. There is no problem in case of TV channels,” the judges said.
The NGO termed unconstitutional certain provisions of agreements the Centre concluded between 1998 and 2008 for permitting private FM channels.
The prohibition on news is imposed through a contractual restriction in the Grant of Permission Agreement (GOPA) between the information and broadcasting ministry, and the operators.
Radio broadcasting was thrown open to the private sector in 1999, and three rounds of licensing for FM channels have been held so far.
At last count, there were 245 private FM channels and 145 community radio stations in the country. But none of them is allowed to broadcast its own news and current affairs programmes. They can only relay AIR news bulletins “in exactly the same format”.
“The permission holder will be permitted to carry news bulletins of All India Radio in exactly same format (unaltered) on such terms and conditions as may be mutually agreed with Prasar Bharati. No other news and current affairs programs are permitted under the policy,” government guidelines issued in 2008 state.
The government’s control over radio is based on the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 and the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1933.
Section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act confers an exclusive privilege on the government in respect of telegraphs, as well as the power to grant licences on such conditions as it thinks fit; Section 3 of the Indian Wireless & Telegraphy Act prohibits the possession of wireless telegraphy apparatus without licence.
Common Cause argued that powers under the two laws had been used to clamp “arbitrary” restrictions. “The government has exercised these statutory powers to impose arbitrary, unreasonable and discriminatory restrictions on the broadcast of news and current affairs-related programmes by private FM and community radio,” its petition said.
It recalled a 1995 apex court judgment — in a case between the ministry of information and broadcasting and Cricket Association of Bengal over telecast rights — that held airwaves to be public property to be used to promote public good and expressing a plurality of views, opinions and ideas.
According to the ruling, the NGO argued, the “freedom of speech and expression” guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution includes the right to acquire and disseminate information.
The PIL claimed India is perhaps the only democracy where radio news and current affairs programmes remain a monopoly of government broadcaster Prasar Bharati Corporation, which runs AIR and Doordarshan.
None of the US's 14,000-plus radio stations, Spain’s 2,000-odd stations the 1,000-plus stations each in Italy, France, Greece and Australia is barred from airing news content, Common Cause said.
Closer home, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh have allowed private FM radio to air news, the PIL said.