Political Economy

NaMo TV is a Mystery Only Because Nobody Has Exploited Loopholes Like This Before

Why are multiple DTH operators such as the Tatas, Bharti Airtel and the Zee Group feeling so generous towards just one special service channel?

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has replied to Election Commission (EC) saying that ‘NaMo TV’, a channel run on all DTH platforms with the Prime Minister’s picture as the brand logo, is a “special service”  broadcast channel.

It therefore requires no licence or permission from the government.

But what else would the I&B ministry of Narendra Modi’s government say? In fact, the ministry is only parroting what BJP spokespersons are saying in TV debates. Amusingly, one representative invoked the BJP’s right to free expression, while openly admitting that he didn’t know who the owners of NaMo TV were.

Even Modi, in an interview with ABP TV, said, “I am told some people have launched a channel though I have not had time to see it myself.”

Clearly, the prime minister also seems unwilling to fully own up to a “special services channel” – run with his picture as the logo – created only to broadcast his image.

Industry sources say this is the first time a special service channel has been launched across multiple DTH platforms such as Tata Sky, Airtel and Dish TV, the last of which is owned by Rajya Sabha MP Subhash Chandra.

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So why are multiple DTH operators such as the Tatas, Bharti Airtel and the Zee Group being so generous towards just one special service or advertisement channel? Special services slots on these DTH platforms are usually used by owners to push their own programmes, such as cooking or acting classes on Tata Sky, or other forms of retail advertising. On the Tata Sky DTH platform, they are called ‘Active Services’.

It is also unusual for a DTH operator to allow a third party – as with NaMo TV – to use its own brand logo (Modi’s face) on a special services platform. This concession seems to be an exclusive favour to the ruling regime.

Now, the BJP claims that NaMo TV is part of such a “special services” bouquet. Therefore, the channel does not need a licence to uplink-downlink via satellite, permissions that all news channels mandatorily need from the I&B ministry.

Interestingly, the first official reaction by Tata Sky referred to NaMo TV as a Hindi news service. This was quickly withdrawn. We were then told it was a special service or an advertising channel.

Industry officials told The Wire that even as an advertising channel, it is governed by the Indian Cable TV Network Act of 1995, which include norms for advertising programmes run through cable TV.

According to the president of the Cable Television Association of India, Roop Sharma, there are restrictions on political content even on advertising programmes. It should be examined whether an advertising channel running partisan political content passes the test of the Cable TV Network Act.

Industry sources also say that after the model code of conduct is in place, even a 30-second slot of advertising bought by a political party to propagate its message on a TV channel needs a certificate from the Election Commission. So if a political party buys ten slots of advertising on any channel, it will require a certificate for each slot from the EC. The commission must examine whether NaMo TV should be subjected to the same norm because, in spirit, it is a 24-hour promotional channel for Narendra Modi and BJP.

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The legal and definitional confusion about NaMo TV has arisen only because no one so far has exploited this loophole in existing broadcast regulation on such a massive scale. There is so much non-transparency that it is not even revealed from where the content for NaMo TV is originating.

As for regulation, former TRAI chairman Rahul Khullar had warned in 2014 that thousands of local channels were proliferating across India without any license or permission from the I&B ministry. These channels were pushing local content through the underground fibre network and were not subjected to any norms whatsoever.

“I had suggested some guidelines for these channels especially when I realised a large number of these had come up in sensitive areas of Northeast and J&K,” Khullar told The Wire.

Khullar had even actively spoken against news and current affairs channels connected closely to regional political parties such as Akali Dal, AIADMK, DMK etc. However, TRAI’s recommendations fell on deaf ears.

Today, it seems the BJP has joined the ranks of political parties running their own channel, albeit through the backdoor.

It is bad optics for the prime minister to let his party exploit such a big loophole in regulation. On top of that, Modi vaguely suggested that some public-spirited people started a channel that he himself hasn’t had the time to watch. It is morally and ethically untenable for the head of a government to allow abuse of regulation when it is the policy-maker’s job to plug such loopholes.

This certainly won’t wash, Mr Prime Minister.