New Delhi: The Prasar Bharati board never approved of the strongly-worded letter which the head of its news service sent to PTI in June, terming it “anti-national” and threatening it with financial sanctions for interviewing the Chinese ambassador to India. The news agency had also earned the ire of right-wing commentators for running a tweet with a quote from India’s ambassador in Beijing which said Chinese troops needed to move back to their side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.
Thought neither ambassador Vikram Misri nor the Ministry of External Affairs ever denied the accuracy of PTI’s tweet, it irked government managers since it contradicted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s televised claim that “no one has intruded” into Indian territory.
In light of the revelation that the Prasar Bharati board did not approve the text of the letter dashed off to PTI, questions are now being asked about who prompted the public broadcaster’s senior official to send it.
The Press Trust of India is India’s largest news agency and began operations in 1949. It is owned by 99 media organisations and remains a major source of information for most print, electronic and digital media groups.
The letter from PB’s news service head Samir Kumar to PTI chief marketing officer had termed PTI’s “recent news coverage” detrimental to “national interest and undermining India’s territorial integrity”. The letter said: “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.”
Finally, it cautioned that “taking into view in totality PTI’s conduct, Prasar Bharati is reviewing the need for continued relationship with PTI and a decision in this regard will be conveyed soon” [sic].
RTI asked Prasar Bharati eight specific queries
Right to Information applications filed with the Prasar Bharati board by Venkatesh Nayak, head of the Access to Information Programme at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, have revealed that the public broadcaster never approved of the letter that was sent to PTI.
Nayak’s RTI applications sought among other things an electronic copy of all communication, along with annexures, if any, issued by any functionary of Prasar Bharati to PTI pointing to ‘editorial lapses’ committed by the latter, which resulted in the dissemination of wrong news harming public interest, since January 1, 2010.
It also asked for a copy of all official documents that contain a description of the criteria used by Prasar Bharati to evaluate whether or not the contents of any news coverage were harmful to the public interest and a copy of all replies, along with annexures, if any, received from PTI in response.
On a more specific note, the query also asked for a copy of all communications, along with annexures, if any, issued by any functionary of Prasar Bharati to any functionary of PTI during the calendar year 2020, regarding the felt need to review their relationship.
Nayak sought a copy of the minutes, if any, of the meeting of the Prasar Bharati where the issuance of the letter to PTI was authorised by the board.
The remaining queries asked for copies of those PTI news items in the years 2019 and 2020 that Prasar Bharati considered “detrimental to the national interest while undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India”. It also demanded copies of documents that contained a description of the criteria used by Prasar Bharati to evaluate any communication by its functionary to PTI while pointing to editorial lapses by the latter which resulted in the “disseminaton of wrong news, harming public interest”.
Prasar Bharati Board says matter never came to it
On July 28, the Prasar Bharati Board, through its CPIO, replied to only one point of Nayak’s query in which he had asked for the details of any meeting of the Prasar Bharati board that may have taken place to discuss the issues raised by its functionary on the need to review the continued relationship of the public broadcaster with PTI.
To this, the Prasar Bharati Board reply said:
“As per available record, during the calendar year 2020, matter under reference did not come to the Prasar Bharati Board before issuance of communication being referred to.”
Referring to the limited response, Nayak told The Wire: “The PIO replied only to one query confirming that the decision to issue notice to PTI had not been run by the board of Prasar Bharati. The remaining RTI queries were transferred to AIR and DD News. Both said they had no information about any of the remaining queries.”
First appeal filed as other queries not answered
Not satisfied with the response, Nayak filed a first appeal with Prasar Bharati. In this, he wrote that he was “aggrieved by the absence of any substantive reply to the remaining queries”. He pointed out that in a catena of decisions, the Central Information Commission has ruled that a CPIO is required to furnish a point-wise reply to every RTI application. “In other words, the CPIO of a public authority must not cherry-pick some queries contained in an RTI application for the purpose of providing a reply and ignore the remaining queries.”
Nayak also wrote that “according to the status of action” taken on his application, the CPIO appeared to have transferred it to Doordarshan and All India Radio. He contested this, saying he was of the firm belief that all this information would be available with Prasar Bharati. He added that as per Section 7(2) of the RTI Act, a CPIO’s failure to provide a substantive reply to an RTI application shall be deemed a refusal to provide.
But after the first appeal, he said, “Prasar Bharati transferred the appeal to AIR and DD news both of whom said they had no information on any of the queries I had raised.”
Prasar Bharati’s response also stated that “all the agreements/ contracts are finalised between Prasar Bharati Secretariat and the news agencies and [the News Services] division has no role to play.”
This clearly established that Samir Kumar had no authority to say Prasar Bharati was “reviewing the need for continued relationship with PTI”.
Prasar Bharati, PTI response awaited on changes if any to agreement
In view of the information revealed through the RTI application, The Wire sent queries to Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi S. Vempati and Member (Finance) Rajeev Singh asking if they were privy to the letter sent by Kumar to PTI; if it was Kumar’s personal decision to send the letter; if Prasar Bharati effected any changes to its ongoing contract with PTI following this letter and if so, to what extent.
The Wire also asked Kumar if the decision to send the letter was entirely his or if it was under instruction from some senior authority to do so. The Wire has also asked Kumar how, as head of the news division, he could have said the public broadcaster is reviewing its relationship with PTI when this was not a matter under his department.
None of these officials have replied as yet.
PTI sources say no change in contract yet
The Wire also asked PTI if Prasar Bharati followed up on the intention declared in the letter to review its relationship with the news agency and if so, how. The news agency has also been asked if it ever asked Prasar Bharati to explain what it meant by its coverage not being in “national interest” and what its idea of such coverage was.
The Wire also sought to know if PTI had ever asked Prasar Bharati how the head of its news service was raising such an issue and under what rules and authority. Finally, the news agency has been asked if its financial dealing with Prasar Bharati changed following the letter and if so, how.
PTI’s formal response is still awaited and will be incorporated as soon as it is received.
Meanwhile, sources at the agency told The Wire there has been no change in the ‘relationship’ between PTI and the autonomous public broadcaster.
What the SC said about freedom of the press and public interest
Coincidentally, September 28 is observed by some as the International Right to Know Day. According to Nayak, the practice began when a group of RTI experts in Europe and the Americas met a few years ago and arbitrarily decided to commemorate RTI on that day. In India, he said, “the Supreme Court has in at least three judgments said the people’s right to know is the basis and foundation of freedom of speech and expression and consequently its derivative, the freedom of the press.”
In Reliance Petrochemicals Ltd. vs Proprietors of Indian Express, the apex court held in 1988:
“Right to Know is a basic right which citizens of a free country aspire in the broader horizon of the right to live in this age in our land under Article 21 of our Constitution. That right has reached new dimensions and urgency. That right puts greater responsibility upon those who take upon the responsibility to inform.”
Then in Indian Express Newspapers Vs Union of India, it held:
“It is with a view to checking such malpractices which interfere with free flow of information, democratic constitutions all over the world have made provisions guaranteeing the freedom of speech and expression laying down the limits of interference with it. It is, therefore, the primary duty of all the national Courts to uphold the said freedom and invalidate all laws or administrative actions which interfere with it contrary to the constitutional mandate.”
The Supreme Court also gave a detailed order on what constituted freedom of the press in the case of Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting vs Cricket Association of Bengal.
Here it said that though “freedom of the press” was not explicitly mentioned in Article 19, it is comprehended within Article 19(1)(a).
“This expression means a freedom from interference from authority which would have the effect of interference with the content and circulation of newspapers. There cannot be any interference with that freedom in the name of public interest. The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which democratic electorate cannot make responsible judgments.”