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Shocking threat

Indeed, the government ought to welcome this knowledge, not shoot the messenger in such a crude fashion.

Statesman News Service | New Delhi |

This comment must be preceded by a disclaimer. This newspaper is a shareholder in Press Trust of India, the national wire agency threatened with a notice of disconnection by its largest subscriber, Prasar Bharati, for putting out an interview of the Chinese ambassador to India.

Having said that, it must also be mentioned that PTI is a not-for-profit company and such shareholding does not yield any pecuniary benefit to this newspaper, as indeed it does not to other newspapers that hold a stake in the agency.

The action by Prasar Bharati, created by an Act of Parliament to lend a measure of independence to Doordarshan and All India Radio, is reprehensible if only because it militates against every tenet of professionalism.

Indeed, it raises serious questions about Prasar Bharati’s independence and confirms that notwithstanding the ornamentation of an Act of Parliament, the organization runs merely as a mouthpiece of the establishment. While this will not surprise journalists, the citizen whose taxes pay for DD and AIR must now realise that the myopic outlook of these state-run news organisations underscores their bias.

Action must be initiated against those responsible for the threat to PTI, if only for their willful destruction of the last shreds of Prasar Bharati’s credibility and for confirming that India, in its own way, is becoming as totalitarian as China. It is an essential function of a news organization to present different points of view, especially in times of discord. PTI’s interview of the Chinese ambassador at a time of heightened tension informed both policy and public opinion.

The interview for the first time carried an admission by China that it had suffered casualties in the recent conflict. Indeed, the government ought to welcome this knowledge, not shoot the messenger in such a crude fashion. The action was crude because unlike a responsible organization, Prasar Bharati issued a threat.

Stating that the wire agency’s coverage was “not in national interest”, Prasar Bharati said, “taking into view in totality PTI’s conduct (sic), Prasar Bharati is reviewing the need for continued relationship with PTI and a decision in this regard will be conveyed soon”. Prasar Bharati buys the wire service put out by PTI and since 2013 has contracted to pay a sum of Rs 9.15 crore to the agency.

Since 2017, instead of agreeing to raise its subscription in view of increased costs of newsgathering, it has unilaterally withheld a quarter of this payment because it wants to re-negotiate. During the period between 2013 and now, the Government which owns Prasar Bharati has through a wage mechanism that it controls, and which is unique to the newspaper industry, increased PTI’s wage burden exponentially.

In short, the Government on the one hand has raised PTI’s expenditure and on the other seeks to reduce its income. This does not say very much for its commitment to the cause of a free Press. The Government must reconsider its action if only because this sorry state of affairs reflects so poorly on it.