New Delhi: After voicing its unhappiness over the Press Trust of India’s independent coverage for some time now, the government-owned broadcaster Prasar Bharati has finally written to the news agency cancelling its subscription.
In a letter dated October 15, Prasar Bharati informed PTI that its board has now “decided to call for fresh proposals for a digital subscription to English text and related multimedia services from all domestic news agencies”.
The letter, signed by Samir Kumar, head of Prasar Bharati News Services and Digital Platform, added that “PTI may participate in the same once it is notified by Prasar Bharati”.
The public broadcaster has been paying PTI Rs 6.85 crore a year towards its news subscription.
In June this year, a senior Prasar Bharati official had denounced PTI for what he called its “anti-national coverage” of the Ladakh standoff.
At the time, Samir Kumar had also written to PTI’s chief marketing officer terming the agency’s “recent news coverage” detrimental to “national interest and undermining India’s territorial integrity”. The letter added: “It is also mentioned that the PTI had…been time and again alerted by the Public Broadcaster on editorial lapses resulting in dissemination of wrong news harming public interest.”
PTI has a large network of reporters and photographers around the country and its services are considered indispensable for all major news organisations in India. Prasar Bharati runs Doordarshan and All India Radio and the two broadcasters have also been long-term subscribers of PTI’s wire services.
While the Prasar Bharati board has also decided to terminate its subscription to UNI – a much smaller wire service with little reach that has far fewer subscribers – the move to invite “fresh proposals” from domestic news agencies is widely seen in media circles as aimed primarily at PTI.
Why PTI matters
For the government, PTI’s coverage is of immense significance as its stories feed hundreds of newspapers and TV stations that don’t always have their own sources of information. Despite its editorial independence, PTI has generally had an excellent working relationship with every government at the Centre, regardless of the party in power. Indeed, for long, the agency has been the preferred outlet for all official communication. Since 2014, however, the relationship has soured with senior ministers and the wider Sangh parivar ecosystem growing resentful of PTI’s independence.
Though the Modi government has favoured the privately run ANI news agency for most of its communication – often choosing them to broadcast the prime minster’s speeches rather even Doordarshan – PTI is still considered the news agency of choice by the Indian media industry.
The first manifestation of official pressure on PTI came in 2016, when Prasar Bharati unilaterally declared that it would pay only 75% of its annual subscription fee of Rs 9.15 crore.
The move came soon after the Modi government failed in its effort to place one of its own nominees as editor of the PTI, with the news agency’s board rebuffing the three names senior minister Arun Jaitley had canvassed for, instead going on to pick Vijay Joshi, a veteran of the Associated Press, as outgoing editor M.K. Razdan’s replacement.
Razdan had steered an independent course for PTI, which is structured as a non-profit trust, even as prominent media houses were trimming their sails. And Joshi is widely credited with running the news agency in a professional manner, devoid of any political bias.
“In PTI, we value our independence”, Hormusji Cama, chairman of the the PTI board had told The Wire in 2016, “and this means we have to be independent of all political parties – be it Congress or BJP.”
Crossing government line of control
Matters came to a head in June this year when the government was irked by PTI’s twin interviews with the Chinese ambassador to India and the Indian ambassador to China. A Prasar Bharati official promptly told reporters, “PTI’s anti national reporting makes it no longer tenable to continue [the] relationship”.
While the government felt the Chinese ambassador should not have been interviewed at all on the Ladakh crisis, PTI’s interview with Indian ambassador Vikram Misri caused acute embarrassment in South Block because his comments on Chinese intrusions – which PTI amplified via a tweet – contradicted prime Minister Modi’s claims that no Indian territory had been compromised.
The Prasar Bharati official said that the public broadcaster “has been supporting PTI with huge annual fees running into several crores, since decades”, and that the news agency had “rigid” on revising its charges upwards since 2016. “Now in totality of PTI’s conduct, Prasar Bharati is reviewing its relationship with PTI. [A] final decision on the same will be conveyed soon.”
Prasar Bharati owes PTI Rs 11 crore
While Prasar Bharati officials sought to minimise the significance of their decision to sever links with PTI by noting that the two organisations have had an “ad hoc” arrangement since 2006, The Wire has learned that this arrangement included an annual escalation clause that the national broadcaster had been abiding by up until 2016.
Since that year, Prasar Bharati has been paying only 75% of PTI’s invoice and sources familiar with the relationship say the arrears now amount to approximately Rs 11 crore.
It is not clear if Prasar Bharati intends to pay that amount or what legal steps PTI will take to recover its dues.
The Wire has learned that the truncated amount Prasar Bharati was paying PTI amounted to 6% of the news agency’s subscription revenue.
PTI’s offices are on Parliament Street, in a building that stands on land that it owns as a result of taking over the Reuters-owned Associated Press of India in 1947.