Must Prasar Bharati spend taxpayers' money on PTI? Five questions on press trust

Abhijit Majumder
·6-min read

Narrative-setting is a fine art, and luckily for its master exponents, not a scientific pursuit of facts and accuracy.

So, on the ongoing row over public broadcaster Prasar Bharati (PB) deciding to review its engagement worth crores of rupees with news agency Press Trust of India (PTI), when the Indian Women Press Corps (IWPC) made a statement, accuracy was surely not on its mind.

"It's ironical that the government chose to crack down on the news agency just hours after marking the anniversary of Emergency," it said in a reported statement.

IWPC is not the only one complaining about "arm-twisting" and suppression of press freedom. The entire anti-Narendra Modi ecosystem has been up in howls.

There is, however, a small problem. During Emergency, Indira and Sanjay Gandhi shut down media outlets that criticised them and threw editors in jail. In this case, the government is not asking PTI to shut down or heckling editors. It is merely reviewing whether taxpayers' money should be go into it.

In fact, the government should be accused of not doing this review on PTI sooner. Also, why did the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting not send the notice directly to the agency instead of making Prasar Bharati do the unpleasant work?

And this is the point at which PTI must answer some questions and come clean on matters of public importance.

Why shouldn't PTI be a lot more transparent and come under the purview of RTI?

In 2010, PTI denied a certain Anshu Kumar information about itself under the Right to Information (RTI). When Kumar complained to the Central Information Commission (CIC) in 2012 during the UPA years, the commission ruled that PTI was not a public authority and did not need to divulge information under RTI.

But in 2019, the Supreme Court rightfully brought under RTI all trusts, societies, and non-government organisations which receive "substantial government financing".

The PTI building stands on land leased for pittance by the government, besides it getting a substantial taxpayers' money €" over Rs 9 crore annually of its Rs 110 crore-odd revenue from subscriptions and services.

The Prasar Bharati has in recent years been asking PTI to be transparent on the expenses break-up so that it can assess how much it should pay, if at all. It is time for PTI to come clean.

Is Prasar Bharati obligated to pay PTI a fat fee or subscribe to its service?

No. Nothing obligates the government to spend public funds on PTI. It is purely discretionary. And for the hefty subscription Prasar Bharati pays, it does not even have a seat on the PTI Board.

Moreover, PTI says it is a private entity, and has been reluctant to come under RTI.

PTI's desperation perhaps comes from the fact that in 2018-'19, despite a total income of Rs 178 crore, it posted a Rs 26.9 crore loss.

What is PTI doing with the prime real estate leased from the government? Has it rented out space to companies in breach of the deed?

The PTI building stands on prime real estate on Parliament street with the imposing Transport Bhavan and Reserve Bank of India as its neighbours. It is leased by the government, that too at highly subsidised rates for public service post-Independence. Today, the government can earn a few hundred crores just renting it.

For many years now, there have been several tenants including Tata Consultancy Services and apparently even foreign defence firms, which have nothing to do with journalism. Many media houses like The Week and Ananda Bazaar Patrika have moved out.

The Second Press Commission report of 1982, dwelling on the lease agreement between newspapers and the government, says: "The deed provides that the premises will not be used for any purpose other than the one for which the land has been allotted to the lessee. No portion of the building can be rented out by the lessee without prior permission of the government."

It adds: "In case€¦it is proved that the premises is ceased to be used for the purpose for which they were allotted, the government can re-enter the land and premises without paying any compensation to the lessee or returning any premium paid.

So, who have the PTI rented out to over the years? Did it have the government's permission to do it? Lastly, should that prime piece of real estate be better utilised to raise money for public welfare?

Where are the papers?

It is fine to say 'kaagaz nahin dikhayenge' at anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests. But with this controversy raging, will PTI make some of its documents available for the public?

For instance, where is the original lease deed made with the government?

Or, when was the last contract signed between the PTI and Prasar Bharati?

Or, what kind of pay packages have PTI's chairpersons, editors-in-chief and top management guys been getting over the years?

Where are the permissions for the renting out premises?

What kind of editorial accountability does PTI demand from its editors and journalists?

Questions on PTI's coverage is not new. The Second Press Commission cites coverage of the Vivian Bose Commission report presented in Parliament in 1963: "There have been allegations of a concerted attempt to prevent a proper summary of the report€¦from being published in the press.

"There is a striking commission in the PTI story. While the Statesman story clearly mentions that five top industrialists belonging to the Dalmia-Jain group were held responsible for fraud, manipulation of accounts, personal gain at the expense of the investor as well as the exchequer and avoidance of taxes and gives their names (Ram Krishan Dalmia, Shanti Prasad Jain, J Dalmia, Shiryans Prasad Jain and Shital Prasad Jain), the PTI story says only that R Dalmia has been held responsible for every malpractice that the commission dealt with."

In recent times, PTI has been repeatedly accused of carrying fake news and furthering a pro-Congress, anti-Modi narrative.

From retracting after publishing a news item saying former defence minister Manohar Parrikar planned surgical strikes on Pakistan after watching an insulting question by a TV anchor, to writing a wrong report on Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath slashing education budget (which Rahul Gandhi used as ammo), to admitting that it "erroneously reported" that a Muslim boy was beaten to death over coronavirus, PTI has been consistently misreporting. What is worse, all those mistakes smell of a certain political bias.

PTI's latest flashpoint with the government is over its interview with Chinese ambassador Sun Weidong. During the interview, the ambassador slammed India for the clash at Galwan Valley. There has been much outrage that in this time of national security crisis, PTI did not bother to counter-question the Chinese ambassador on his shady claims.

What action and corrective steps have PTI taken to improve its quality of news?

Finally, must the public broadcaster continue to spend taxpayers' money on a platform that refuses to be transparent to public scrutiny, sits on super-prime government land, and slips up on its basic function of producing accurate and unbiased news?

You say.

Also See: Prasar Bharati threatens to cancel PTI's subscription, accuses news agency of 'anti-national' reportage

Galwan Valley clash: India is next target of Chinese misinformation machinery and we are already falling prey

Galwan Valley clash: Neither is anyone inside Indian territory, nor has any post been captured, says Narendra Modi at all-party meeting

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