The Modi regime couldn’t capture PTI, so it launched PBNS. How is the enterprise going?

Certainly not swimmingly.

WrittenBy:Atul Chaurasia
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One evening in July this year, a journalist took an Ola cab home from Akashvani Bhawan, the headquarters of All India Radio, on Parliament Road in Delhi. The driver was listening to the Market Mantra show on FM Gold. Intrigued, the journalist asked if the driver understood the stock market and if enjoyed listening to the programme.

“I don’t care about this show,” the driver replied. “But this station plays the best songs. After this programme ends, great songs will play. On no other channel can I listen to famous old songs. That is why I listen to it.”

The journalist kept quiet. He didn’t tell the driver that FM Gold no longer played music. Presumably because he couldn’t drive his car for a few months because of the coronavirus lockdown, the driver had missed his favourite radio station’s transformation into a 24-hour news channel. And the journalist he was driving had played a role in it.

FM Gold became a news station on March 25, the same day India went into lockdown. As a consequence, 80 casual employees lost their jobs almost overnight. The rationale provided by AIR for this drastic move was that in a pandemic people needed information more than they did entertainment.

The actual motivation wasn’t as mundane, however. There are multiple threads linking FM Gold’s sudden transformation to the spat between Prasar Bharati, the state broadcaster, and the news agency Press Trust of India; the formation of the Prasar Bharati News Service last year; and the Narendra Modi government’s excessive love for publicity.

From entertainment to news

FM Gold was launched on Independence Day in 2001 as AIR’s infotainment channel. It would play music from the rich archives of AIR and run programmes featuring people from the worlds of film and music, peppered by short news bulletins. To begin with, news consumed around 30 percent of the broadcast time and entertainment shows the rest. In quick time, FM Gold became popular with the people.

Not so much with the officialdom, which sought to put fetters on the channel.

First, they changed the channel’s broadcast frequency. Then, they altered its very character.

FM Gold began on 106.4 MHz frequency. For FM channels, their broadcast frequency is their brand. Yet, in March 2018, FM Gold was robbed of its 106.4 MHz frequency. AIR announced on WhatsApp, and subsequently on Twitter and Facebook, that FM Gold Delhi would move to 100.1 MHz from April 9. Thus was a popular channel suddenly robbed of its identity without any explanation to the public.

Still, its dedicated casual employees and the rich archives of AIR ensured that FM Gold was always ahead of the competition. So much so that many private FM channels emulated its formula of running “superhit” songs and interviews of filmstars old and new.

Then, FM Gold was handed over to AIR news division. Now it airs news bulletins all day long, as also Modi’s speeches, government ads and repeated programmes. Running Modi’s old speeches and repeating programmes became necessary after the firing of the 80 employees brought the production operations to a near halt.

The dearth of good content isn’t the only problem, however. The news broadcasts on FM Gold are heavily skewed towards Modi’s government and party. This was quite clear, to take one example, in the half-hour bulletin aired at 8 pm on July 30. The news reader provided information about the coronavirus situation in Kerala, emphasising that the infection was spreading rapidly. In the previous 24 hours, two people had succumbed to the virus, taking the death toll 70.

The news reader then turned to Gujarat and declared that Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, under Modi’s guidance, had successfully handled the pandemic, but didn’t provide any numbers for the state. That day, 24 people had died of Covid in Gujarat and the total number of infections had risen to 2,396.

If that wasn’t bizarre enough, the news bulletin ran a statement by Rupani admonishing the Kerala government for “mishandling” the pandemic.

This is precisely what the channel is meant to be, a propaganda tool for the party in power, said P R Natrajan, a CPM member of the parliamentary committee on information and broadcasting. “FM Gold has been turned into a propaganda channel,” he added. “Narendra Modi’s thinking is apparent. He is known for publicity and propaganda. That’s the rationale for turning FM Gold into a news channel.”

Has his committee discussed FM Gold’s transformation and the sacking of its 80 employees? He replied, “I cannot tell you what was discussed in the committee but our sympathies are with FM Gold employees.”

Asked about the repurposing of FM Gold and the mass sacking of its casual employees, Shashi Shekhar Vempati, the CEO of Prasar Bharati told the Times of India, “There is no employee-employer relationship here. These are freelance assignments on a part-time basis subject to needs of AIR. Several casual assignees continue to deliver services per assignments across the network and are getting paid as per their entitlements on an assignment basis.”

Many of the casual employees Vempati calls freelancers had worked with FM Gold for 10 to 20 years. Rama Sharma was a casual announcer at FM Gold. He now helps run the All India Radio Broadcasting Professionals, a pressure group formed by the sacked employees. “We are casual employees. Many of us have been fighting cases in the Supreme Court to get AIR to make us permanent since 2016,” he told Newslaundry. “To say we are freelancers, that we have no employer-employee relationship with Prasar Bharati is incorrect. Had it been true, the Central Administrative Tribunal wouldn’t have heard our petition on rescreening. We have an order from the Jabalpur High Court where AIR accepts that we are its employees.”

The Central Administrative Tribunal mediates disputes between government employees and institutions. The tribunal only hears government workers. Sometime ago, Prasar Bharati had ordered all its employees over 35 years of age to be rescreened and reinstituted. Its casual employees opposed this order before the tribunal and obtained a stay.

Prasar Bharati News Service

Prasar Bharati News Service, an ambitious project of the Modi government, began in rather interesting circumstances. In 2014, after the BJP came to power, they began exerting control over key sections of the Indian media, directly or indirectly. One of the prime targets was the country’s largest and most reputable news agency, PTI.

On February 26, 2016, PTI called an emergency meeting of its board, which has 98 members, drawn mostly from India’s top media houses. The board was informed that the Modi regime wanted to have greater say in PTI’s functioning and, to this end, wanted to bring in a chief editor of their choice. The board, however, decided that they would oppose any government interference and resolved to preserve PTI’s autonomy.

M K Razdan, the longtime editor and CEO of PTI, had already expressed his intention to retire from the latter position because of his advancing years. So, the board formed a committee to select his successor. Its members were Mahendra Mohan Gupta of Dainik Jagran, Riyad Mathew of Malayala Manorama, and H Pochkhanwala, an independent director of PTI.

Soon, a member of the search committee anonymously claimed to the media that three seasoned editors were in the running to succeed Razdan.

This caused a furore: why was PTI looking for a new editor when Razdan was only leaving his position as the CEO?

Then another member, again anonymously, clarified that the committee hadn’t even met yet. “No advertisement has been published in any newspaper and there’s no information on PTI website. These names have been conjured out of thin air, the editor’s post was never on the agenda.”

Hormusji N Kama, then chairman of the PTI, released a statement as well: “We have always valued our independence. I want to assure every one of you that we would not allow any political influence and interference in the PTI.”

The board came out in support of their chairman, and thus was thwarted the Modi government’s attempt to capture the news agency. But the fight between PTI and the Modi regime had just begun.

Having failed to install an editor of their choice, the government moved to limit PTI’s relevance and reach. They started by cutting off PTI’s sources of income. In 2017, Prasar Bharati decided to stop subscribing to PTI and UNI in favour of Hindusthan Samachar, a news agency backed by the RSS. The truth is, Prasar Bharati had already been using the services of Hindusthan Samachar, offered by it free of cost. In the end though, given the uproar the news had generated, Prasar Bharati didn’t subscribe to Hindusthan Samachar.

“The reason for not subscribing to Hindusthan Samachar was their shallow content,” a Prasar Bharati official said. “The reports were shoddy and were completely skewed towards a political party. The government too was on the back foot once the news was leaked to the media.”

Meanwhile, Hindusthan Samachar took another hit. The news agency had long been funded by R K Sinha, a Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP and the owner of India’s largest private security agency. By early 2019, however, Sinha had grown disillusioned with the BJP. People close to him said he wanted to fight the last Lok Sabha election from Patna, Bihar. Patna is his hometown and the caste equations favoured him, as they had Shatrughan Sinha earlier. But the party fielded Ravi Shankar Prasad. A dejected R K Sinha drew back from Hindusthan Samachar.

Today, Hindusthan Samachar is mired in uncertainty, with the scheme to expand its reach and influence under Prasar Bharati’s patronage all but dead.

The Modi regime’s desire to rein in PTI was not sated, however. In yet another bid to cut it down to size, bureaucrats and journalists aligned with the BJP advised the government to start its own news agency using Prasar Bharati. Prasar Bharati News Service was floated in 2019.

The rationale given was that AIR had over 700 reporters across the country and Doordarshan about 400 reporters and stingers, forming a vast network that the state broadcaster could easily use to start its own news agency.

“If we look at this from an intellectual capital perspective then it's a good step and it will help reduce Prasar Bharati’s budget,” said a journalist who is employed by AIR as an adviser. “If 11,00 reporters of Doordarshan and AIR are used well, PBNS can become a news agency better than PTI or UNI and we won’t have to spend extra money on it.”

Here’s where it gets rather shady. Back when Prasar Bharati was considering going with Hindusthan Samachar, the news agency’s CEO, Sameer Kumar, was involved in the decisionmaking. When the PBNS started its operation, Kumar became its CEO.

Setting up a news agency isn’t very hard for an organisation of the size and resources of Prasar Bharati. Running a professional news agency is another matter, however. Indeed, Prasar Bharati has been struggling to mould its network of reporters into a credible news agency. The other problem is how does the PBNS find enough subscribers for its news to reduce the expenses on services provided to it by PTI and UNI?

This budgeting problem lies at the centre of the battle between Prasar Bharati and PTI. The broadcaster used to pay Rs 15.75 crore in annual subscription fees to PTI and UNI, with Rs 9 crore going to PTI. In 2018, when Hindusthan Samachar came into the picture, Prasar Bharati held back a quarter of the payment, claiming it wanted to rationalise the subscription fees. Since then, Prasar Bharati has been paying only Rs 6.75 crore per year to PTI. The news agency has gone to court to obtain the full payment.

After India and China clashed along the border in Ladakh earlier this year, Prasar Bharati opened a new front in its battle against PTI.

Here’s what happened.

PTI interviewed China’s ambassador to India Sun Weidong. From this interview, the Chinese embassy picked three questions and posted them on its website out of context, prompting severe criticism of the news agency. PTI then ran an interview with Vikram Misri, India’s ambassador to China, who spoke about China unilaterally changing the status quo along the Line of Actual Control and its consequences. This contradicted Modi’s statement that “neither has anyone infringed or encroached on India’s territory, nor any of our posts have been captured by a foreigner”.

Sameer Kumar, the PBNS CEO, took umbrage. In a scathing letter to PTI on June 27, he claimed the news agency’s coverage was “not in the national interest and undermining India’s territorial integrity”.

He went on to PTI on notice: “Taking into view in totality PTI’s conduct, Prasar Bharati is reviewing the need for a continued relationship with PTI and a decision in this regard will be conveyed soon.”

This turned on the radars of many people within Prasar Bharati and outside. Why was the notice sent through the PBNS when PTI’s services are used by Doordarshan and AIR? The PBNS has no professional relationship with PTI. If the notice had to be sent, it should have gone from the office of Vempati, the Prasar Bharati CEO.

Here the story links back to FM Gold. The PBNS has to fulfil its mandate of reducing Prasar Bharati’s annual budget by ending the broadcaster’s reliance on PTI and UNI. That won’t happen until it gets a good number of subscribers. But if there are no takers for its services, what would it do with the voluminous content that it is likely to generate. Feed to FM Gold, that is what?

“This is the pressure of justifying one’s existence,” a journalist at AIR explained. “If this much content is to be created, then there must be someone to consume it. For now, the solution these people have come up with is turning FM Gold into a 24-hour news channel. The government is fine with this because their schemes are being discussed all the time. New programmes aren’t being produced or the content isn’t creative enough, so they are repeating old programmes. But the question is, how long will the people listen to praises of Modi ji?”

Many questions remain unanswered. Is Prasar Bharati ending its subscription of PTI? What’s the strategy for the PBNS to bring in subscribers? Will the sacked casual employees of FM Gold be reinstated? Is there any plan to return FM Gold to its original avatar?

Only two people can answer such questions, Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati and PBNS chief Sameer Kumar. Newslaundry sent a list of questions to them. They both read the questions on WhatsApp but didn’t respond to them. Attempts to contact them over the phone proved unsuccessful. This story will be updated if a response is received.

A version of this story was previously published on Newslaundry Hindi.


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article imageUpset with PTI’s Ladakh conflict coverage, Prasar Bharati says it will review ties with the news agency


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