Network 18 has launched a campaign in “public interest”. Or so it wants us to believe. A closer scrutiny reveals that the campaign may have more to do with aiding the business interest of the media entity’s corporate masters, Reliance Industries Limited (RIL).
Christened “No Call Drops”, the campaign was launched earlier this month and, as the name suggests, is an initiative to get people to rally against call drops.
The campaign’s Twitter page declares: “#NoCallDrops is a forum for consumers to demand better services from service providers. We have a right to better voice and data services…”
The initiative, by way of video testimonies, provides a platform for users from all walks of life to talk about the problems they face owing to call drops.
In this video, a girl from Thiruvananthapuram complains about a call drop in the middle of an important call. She states she is a BSNL customer. Another young man from Ahmedabad states that though “BSNL says that they are connecting people over India”, he cannot get in touch with his girlfriend right next door. Most victims of call drops appear to be BSNL users.
How call drops can affect journalists’ lives, too, is illustrated through an animation titled: “Correspondent fails to contact news room on Tomar’s fake degree row, thanks to call drops”. (We hope the corrspondent covering the Smriti Irani fake degree row managed to contact the IBN newsroom without any glitches.)
So far so good. It’s when the campaign enters the “why” of the issue that it becomes dicey on two counts – lack of full disclosure and an apparent attempt to peddle ideas that will help expand the owner’s business rather than truly empower users.
Check out the video below as part of a CNN IBN report that looks at the reasons that are preventing India from “enjoying uninterrupted service”.
The video starts with a byte from Union Minister of Telecom Ravi Shankar Prasad in response to a Network 18 reporter stating: “Agar log tower nahin lagane denge toh call drop hoga [if people don’t let towers come up, there will be call drops].”
It goes on to inform that India has only “4 lakh towers to cater to more than 970 million users” and that service providers are unable to set up towers at “optimal sites” because of objections from residents and resident welfare associations. Absence of “single-window clearance” for setting up mobile towers is another reason.
All this information is attributed to “sources in the telecom industry”.
It’s not just this video though. Network 18 as part of the campaign is relaying videos through its news channels – like CNN IBN and IBN 7 — that talk about the necessity to set up new mobile towers. “Are you hit by call drops” has an industry expert from TelecomTalk assuage fears of radiations coming from mobile towers.
“Why call drops are so frequent in India” again thrusts on the importance of installing new mobile towers. “Radiation myths busted” aired on CNN IBN has an oncologist saying fears of radiation are exaggerated. It also cites the World Health Organisation report stating that there’s no danger from mobile towers.
There’s also the video “Industry experts talk about radiation” with “telecom” expert Kunal Bajaj. In all of this, there’s the lone voice of an “anti-tower proponent” whose views are introduced to convey that they are not based on evidence and not shared with telecom operators. And an article that quotes Broadcom stating that towers are not necessary to solve the problem of call drops.
What the campaign never mentions by way of full disclosure is that Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited, the telecom unit of RIL, is set to start its commercial operations and expand to provide 4G services.
This expansion plan, however, has been delayed to December. Part of the reason is the opposition to the construction of mobile towers, like in Kochi where people have opposed the construction in 200 places. The roll-out also faced problems in Mumbai where residents have opposed the company’s plan to set up towers in public spaces. Ditto in Andhra Pradesh, Ujjain and in Nashik. In Nagpur, it was reported that the company had set up towers without no-objection certificates.
In the face of stiff opposition, RIL, it seems, has decided to sensitise people to the possibility that their fears pertaining to mobile towers may be exaggerated through its “No Call Drops” drive — even as studies on the health hazards of mobile tower radiations are, at best, inconclusive and ongoing.
Now, RIL has every right to carry a PR campaign to speed up the 4G rollout. But why do that under the garb of a “public interest” initiative about call drops? And why provide an incomplete picture on the perceived health hazards?
The campaign videos have tickers screaming out the WHO study, but fail to mention that it states that uncertainty remains on the issue and that governments should strictly adhere to existing national or international safety standards while research is on.
When Reliance took over the Network 18 group, concerns were raised over how the network’s properties may get abused to further the group’s agenda. With the channels now peddling what is essentially Reliance’s PR overdrive in anticipation of the nationwide 4G Jio launch, those fears may finally be coming true.