Radio may be the most democratic of all media. But in India, the largest democracy in the world, it also continues to be the only medium which is not allowed to air news. The government regulates this medium with an iron hand - any information broadcast by radio should adhere to the government's codes, and should not have any political content. Print and TV media, in contrast, have managed to keep government control away, and have self-regulating bodies.

Radio still has the highest reach across the country; the illiterate poor as well as people in remote areas have been relying on it for information. But the only news available to them is that of the government-owned and controlled All India Radio (AIR). As a result, no objective information or criticism of governance reaches them.

But on controlling radio content, government may be violating the law itself. In 1995, the Supreme Court passed an order in the case of Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) vs Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, that airwaves belong to the public, and the government had no monopoly over them. The CAB's case was that it should be able to give broadcast rights to any agency, for events that it organised. The ruling made it clear that government can only regulate, not restrict, content that is broadcast on radio. The SC also asked the government to set up an independent body to regulate broadcast.

It has been 17 years since the court order. Radio became open to the private sector in 1999, and there have been three rounds of licensing for FM channels so far. Today there are 245 private FM channels in the country. But none of them is allowed to broadcast news.

The justification of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) is that "it would be difficult to monitor all channels". This is mentioned in the MIB website, as a response to the 2008 recommendations of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on FM phase 3 licensing. TRAI is an independent body that regulates all telecom and communication businesses in India, recommending terms of license, monitoring quality etc of communication service providers. It was set up as per TRAI Act, 1997.

TRAI had recommended that private FM channels be allowed to broadcast news from AIR, PTI, as well as other authorised news channels and agencies, without substantially changing the content. MIB responded that it could not allow complete freedom for radio news, as there were no localised regulatory bodies to monitor "private channels and the sensitivities involved". "What is material is the way of presentation. The same event can be sensationalised or put in a sober manner, taking care of the sentiments and sensitivities involved," said MIB in its response.

It, however, allowed FM channels to broadcast only AIR bulletins and audio versions of Doordarshan news, without modifications. Such broadcast has not started yet, as existing stations have not yet migrated to phase 3, and auction for new stations have not yet begun.

MIB currently also allows 'information' to be broadcast. This includes news on sports, traffic, weather, cultural events, education and employment, and public announcements made by local authorities on amenities like water and power supply. Effectively, there is a ban on political news more than anything else, since nearly a lot of other kinds of news is allowed under the banner of 'information'.

The Ministry's agreements with FM channels also state that the government will have the final say on whether a programme is 'news' or 'information'. This is a clear violation of the SC order, which said that government cannot control broadcast content.

Effectively, there is a ban on political news more than anything else, since a lot of other kinds of news is allowed under the banner of 'information'.

Channels must also follow the Programme and Advertising Code of AIR, which lists many restrictions. Some of them are, that criticism of any individual or group or friendly country is prohibited, words contemptuous of religious groups cannot be used, programmes should not be defamatory or contain half-truths, and cannot cast aspersions on the dignity of the President and Vice-President.

News recommended earlier also

This is not the first time MIB has rejected recommendations to allow news on radio. In 2004, soon after radio broadcasting was brought under its ambit, TRAI had given the recommendations for FM phase 2 licensing. TRAI had then recommended that news be allowed after imposing the AIR programme code on channels, and after considering existing policies for other media. Allowing news would provide greater variety to audiences, and make channels more viable; possible law and order complications on allowing news could be tackled through crime-prevention laws and other safeguards, it said.

A similar recommendation was made in 2003 by the Radio Broadcast Policy Committee headed by Dr Amit Mitra, Secretary General of FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry). MIB had formed this committee to make recommendations for phase 2 licensing. Both recommendations were rejected.

The government's control over radio is based on two laws - the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 and Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1933. As per these, radio channels need a general Grant of Permission Agreement (GOPA) from the MIB, and then a wireless operating license from the MoCIT (Ministry of Communications and Information Technology). While MIB's GOPA gives permission and specifies content code, MoCIT allocates spectrum and fixes license fee.

GOPA specifies penalties for violating content restrictions. In case of the first violation, the committees can temporarily suspend the license of the channel for a month. For a second violation, the license can be suspended for three months. For the third violation, the license can be revoked. If the channel does not comply with penalties, its license will be revoked, and it will be barred from applying for a license again for five years.

With the current restrictions, FM stations now are essentially music channels. Most of them are run by big business conglomerates. Big FM, owned by Reliance Broadcast Network, and Fever 104, owned by Hindustan Times Media are examples. FM radio has been an additional source of income for these groups, and they have put much less pressure on government, compared to TV broadcasters, for greater press freedom. There have hardly been any stations genuinely interested in news broadcasts.

However, the Association of Radio Operators for India (AROI) says that it has been pressuring the government to allow news. "After our demands, the government said last year that news will be allowed on radio after a National Monitoring System is set up to monitor content. Ideally radio should self-regulate its news based on general guidelines for all media. Monitoring news in cities is easier; so at least radio channels in cities should be allowed to have news now," says Uday Chawla, Secretary General, AROI.

Community radio restricted too

With FM radio being concentrated in cities, community radio has been the only possibility for rural areas. Community radio is mainly operated by non-profit organisations, educational institutions and Krishi Vigyan Kendras. Initially, in 2002, only educational institutions and KVKs could set up stations. But after much struggle by civil rights groups and media activists, the revised 2006 guidelines allowed non-profits also to start such channels.

Community radio stations, which operate on much lower transmission power than their commercial counterparts, are - according to the government - intended to give information to small, local communities. They operate with the same restrictions as private FM stations, but additionally, are not allowed to air AIR and DD news bulletins also. The GOPA for community radio says that they can air content on agriculture, health, education, social welfare etc., but no news or anything political in nature.

Even after complying with these restrictions, it has been an uphill battle for community radio, as more rules keep coming its way. In 2002, there was no fee for community radio. But in 2006, the annual license fee was fixed at Rs. 19,700. Earlier this year, the fee was steeply hiked to Rs. 91,000. Across the world, community radios are usually not charged any license fee at all.

After the fee hike, MIB wrote to MoCIT asking it to roll back the fee, but MoCIT has not made any decision so far. Some stations have paid the fee and renewed their license, while others are waiting for government's response. "Non-profits already have difficulties sustaining themselves; they will not be able to pay such fee annually. Only major NGOs have paid the fee so far. Others are wondering if their license will be revoked," says N Ramakrishnan, General Secretary of Community Radio Forum (CRF). CRF is an activist group of community radio broadcasters.

'Disturbed' areas - like those that have naxal activity - still get only AIR broadcasts. CRF says that applications for community radio in these areas have been rejected many times. This is because applicants have to get permission from various departments like Defence and Home departments. "Such applications are largely rejected by the Home department though it does not have any specific policy on this. Allowing stations will only better the situation in these areas, as people will have a medium to talk about and resolve their problems," says Ramakrishnan.

However, MIB's Community Radio Cell says denies the problem exists. Inderjeet Grewal, who heads the CR Cell, says, "The Home department only rejects applications that do not meet general criteria such as the group not having the capacity to air enough programmes. Applications are not rejected in disturbed areas for security reasons. Areas like Ranchi and Chhattisgarh do have a couple of radio stations."

Previously, satellite radio used to be the only unregulated segment. WorldSpace, the only satellite radio channel to have entered India, used to broadcast news, since there were no restrictions on it at the time - from 2000 to 2009. Due to losses, however, the company stopped operations at the end of 2009; by then, in 2008, TRAI had made its draft Satellite Radio Policy which restricted news on these stations also - although it is not clear how it would have enforced them if these were beamed from foreign satellites. The draft policy allowed only AIR news in satellite channels. On getting comments opposing this restriction, TRAI responded with a strange logic - that the audience of satellite radio was small, affluent, and already had access to other private news sources, and therefore did not need news from this source!!

Regulatory body yet to be formed

The draft Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2007, has provisions for an independent broadcast regulator, restrictions on cross-media ownership, and new technologies. It was accompanied by a content code for broadcast media. On radio content, the Bill only repeats MIB's existing policies. But the Bill had to be shelved after TV broadcasters opposed its provisions, saying these would restrict media freedom. TV broadcasters instead formed their own self-regulatory body in 2008.

There is also the draft Communications Convergence Bill, 2001, which provides for a Communications Commission of India with power to regulate content and licensing of any media. It would supersede four existing Acts - the colonial-era Indian Telegraph Act and the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, and also the TRAI Act, and the Telegraph Wire Unlawful Possession Act of 1950. This Bill has not been placed in Parliament yet.

In the current scenario, the court order may take a long time to be implemented. For the moment, the news of the day continues to be that the public is not allowed to freely hear it on the radio.