India May Block the Global Village of Foreign TV

Six years after the debut of cable and satellite television, government squares off with private operators over control

From his cramped control room above a stationery shop in the posh New Delhi suburb of Greater Kailash, Kamal Gera is changing the way Indians see the world around them.

Mr. Gera is a cablewallah, the Hindi slang for cable television operator. Young, brash, and immensely powerful, his company - Wave Communications - is the bane of government legislators battling for access to the world's second-largest TV market.

For the past seven years, Gera and thousands more like him all over India have been breaking with impunity the Indian government's jealously guarded monopoly over television.

Armed with a couple of satellite dishes and enough cable to wire up the local neighborhood, they distribute programs like "Baywatch" and "The Bold and the Beautiful" to 12 million TV sets scattered around the country for as little as 150 rupees ($4) a month.

Ever since satellite and cable television made its debut here in 1990, the government has slumbered while the industry boomed on the back of a growing economy - and an insatiable demand for news and entertainment.

Federal officials have been powerless to control what is beamed down from the dozens of satellites hovering over India, apart from insisting that cablewallahs include two stations from the stodgy, state-run Doordarshan (DD) network on their service.

But proposed broadcasting legislation soon to be introduced in parliament would turn Asia's freest television markets into one of the most restrictive regimes in the world, say its critics.

Century-old laws drafted in the days when news was sent via telegraph would be replaced by new legislation aimed at controlling what India's 360 million TV viewers can watch.

"We have to preserve our culture," says C.M. Ibrahim, the information and broadcasting minister, justifying the need to rein in satellite broadcasters. "They [private local and foreign satellite channels] didn't even have the courtesy to ask the government whether they could enter. Yes, I want to bring a law to bring them under the control of India."

At a time when India is opening up its economy to the rest of the world, the new broadcast bill would make it a crime to receive an unlicensed satellite channel on a private dish.

Cable TV would no longer be the cottage industry it is now. From about 40,000 cablewallahs, the number would come down to 40 or so regional cable networks.

As a precondition to issuing a license, the government would retain the right to transmit information it deems is in the public interest, therefore giving it immense power to control the content of television in India.

While the bill allows for up to 49 percent foreign investment in Indian satellite channels, it puts strict controls on who is allowed to own what.

The only aspect of the new legislation that has been welcomed by all quarters is the right of private broadcasters to transmit their signals from Indian soil, which has been the monopoly of DD. But many cable and TV industry representatives believe the draft legislation is nothing more than a veiled attempt to clamp down on the electronic media.

"Things have been out of control now for six or seven years. To put the controls in place the government needs to take very harsh measures," says K.K. Sharma, editor of India's leading cable industry magazine, Cable Quest. "But this going too far."

Billions of dollars worth of investment plans by global media giants have suddenly been put on hold until the legislation is passed. And cablewallahs like Gera have been left pondering their future.

"Of course I am opposed to the bill. How could I be in favor of it?" asks a stoic Gera, who would be out of business under the proposed legislation. "But I can understand the government wanting to get revenue out of Indian and foreign private broadcasters and control what is going to air."

Containing the anarchy on the airwaves is not the only reason the government has acted now. A Supreme Court ruling in 1995, which ruled that the airwaves were public property, forced the need to draft new broadcasting legislation.

One of the architects of that legislation was Bhaskar Ghose. Formerly the head of the information and broadcasting department, he is critical of the government for tying down the airwaves instead of opening them up.

"They are fascists. They want people to get only the information they want to convey," says Mr. Ghose. "As pure policy it makes no sense at all.

"One doesn't need Draconian legislation written into an act like this." Ghose is also critical of the proposed Broadcast Authority of India, which instead of being an independent arbitrator comprising media experts as was intended, would be completely under the control of the information minister.

"This goes against the spirit of liberalization. Control will be back in the hands of the bureaucracy," he argues.

Ghose believes the government has caved in to the interests of Indian satellite channel owners who want to block international networks like Rupert Murdoch-owned Star TV from using their financial clout to dominate the industry. "They want to broadcast what they want to broadcast, not what the viewer wants to see," he argues.

But Kiran Karnik of the Indian subsidiary for the Discovery Channel disagrees: "The bill seeks to organize, set standards, and promote activity and investments in the field of media, which is a good sign."

Apart from strong lobbying from foreign broadcasters and cablewallahs to have the bill amended, it also faces opposition from left-wing groups in the 13- party United Front coalition government who are against foreign investment in electronic media.

"The government has other more pressing priorities, and this bill is too controversial to get an easy run in parliament," predicts George Sebastian, advertising director at MTV India.

If that turns out to be the case, then Gera and his Wave Communications look likely to stay ahead in the battle to rule the airwaves over India.

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