On Thursday, the Prasar Bharati board agreed to terminate its subscription to the country’s largest news agency, Press Trust of India, a move it said was a business decision but is widely believed to have been accelerated by disagreements over the handling of news by the wire service.
As part of the review of the public broadcaster ‘s partnership with the country’s oldest news agencies, the United News of India also earned the axe after disagreements emerged over the annual subscriptions.
According to officials from Prasar Bharati, the board agreed at its meeting on Thursday to call for new proposals from all domestic news agencies for digital subscriptions and related multimedia services.
In response to the charge that ending PTI’s subscription was another assault on press freedom, both PTI and UNI are “free to make new suggestions to Prasar Bharati,” the CEO of the public broadcaster, Shashi S. Vempati, tweeted.
This is the first time the CEO has reacted to such criticism, kicked off by the June letter from Prasar Bharati to PTI warning the agency to terminate the subscription to its “detrimental to national interest” news feed for coverage.
The June letter was sent after the Chinese ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, and his Indian counterpart in Beijing, Vikram Misri, were interviewed by PTI.
Apparently, the interview with Sun irritated the government because it gave China space in the newspapers. As for the Misri interview, the original tweets on it from the agency attributed a statement to the ambassador that contradicted the assertion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that no one had invaded Indian territory.
Although this alleged statement by Misri was not included in the copy that was released for use, the original tweets were not removed by PTI. Nor did Misri or the ministry of external affairs deny that he had said so.
The warning letter to PTI was sent by the Prasar Bharati News Service, a newly established public broadcaster unit, while All India Radio and Doordarshan are the largest consumers of the feed within the organisation.
With UNI, too, the subscription fees were a concern. Prasar Bharati had insisted on a service-based rationalisation of the subscription formula after the expiry of the last three-year contract with the two agencies in 2015-16, but both PTI and UNI decided to proceed with the year-old integrated payment mechanism.
Since then, pending a resolution of the matter, Prasar Bharati has kept back about 25 percent of the subscription fees to either organisation. There is no clarification now about how the issue of dues will be dealt with or whether the decision will be contested by the two agencies. Until late Friday evening, neither agency had commented on the developments.
Speculation has been rife that the government is targeting PTI in particular to make space for its preferred agency — Asia News International — and Hindustan Samachar, which has been revived since the Modi government came to power in 2014.
That ANI, which specialises in audio-visual material, is the favourite of the government is evident from the way it airs the speeches of the Prime Minister in preference to Doordarshan.
This stream has been available live on YouTube and ANI since the lockdown began and news conferences went online, but not on Doordarshan, which used to have almost exclusive government rights to such broadcasts.
Previously the Chinese diplomat accused New Delhi of purposely provoking a violent clash on June 15 in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley. Sun had said to PTI, “The onus is not on China.” The Indian hand, for provocation, crossed the Line of Actual Control and targeted Chinese border forces. The Indian forces have severely breached agreements between the two countries on border issues.
Prasar Bharati shared his “deep dissatisfaction” in a letter to PTI Board Chairman Vijay Kumar Chopra, adding that the “anti-national” reporting of the news agency makes it no longer viable to continue the relationship. Prasar Bharati was said to be taking a final call on the matter soon.
The state broadcaster claimed that by paying a ‘massive’ annual fee running into crores for years, it helped the news agency. The organisation was also accused of being strict on the question of rationalising the subscription fee.