Abdul Bari Masoud | Caravan Daily
NEW DELHI — Indian media owned by a powerful few, with strong political links, also lacks plurality and diversity. This was revealed in the first of its kind of study on media ownership in India, carried out by Delhi-based digital media company, DataLEADS in collaboration with Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The study also revealed that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent election victory came within a surprisingly tight media space, with State’s monopoly in radio news and highly concentrated regional newspaper markets that are controlled by a small number of powerful owners, some of whom have strong political affiliations.
The Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) project findings show that a large number of media outlets do not necessarily translate into a pluralistic media landscape. It seems to be the main reason behind the resentment of a vast section of the populace against the media in the country.
The production of media content and its distribution are becoming increasingly combined and, again concentrated in the hands of a few. Even though India might appear as an ‘overly legislated’ country in many ways, media laws relating to the concentration of ownership are fragmented, incoherent and largely ineffective – also because TV ratings remain no transparent and owned by the industry. As a result, regardless of India’s size, a small number of companies and conglomerates dominate the country’s media landscape.
Releasing the report at a special event here at the India International Centre, noted journalist Syed Nazakat, who is founder and CEO of DataLEADS, said India is one of the biggest media markets in the world but the concentration of ownership of media shows that a handful of people own and control Indian media.
“Our research captures ownership structures and reflects on media pluralism. This is an important initiative to strengthen media ownership transparency which is fundamental to media’s credibility and its relationship with audiences”.
This project serves as a useful data and resource base for future media research in the country, ” Nazakat added.
In his address, RSF International president Michael Rediske underlined the salient features of the study stating that a common man can easily understand who controls the media in India.
“With our research, we created a database for everyone so that citizens can understand who owns and ultimately controls the media”, he said.
The report stated that India has a huge media market but unfortunately it is controlled by a few. The Media Ownership Monitor for India, which has analysed 58 leading media outlets with the largest audience shares in India, revealed that the country’s print media market is highly concentrated. Four outlets – Dainik Jagran, Hindustan, Amar Ujala, and Dainik Bhaskar– capture three out of four readers (76.45% of readership share) within the national Hindi language market.
Some of the key findings of the research spanning over six months are as follows:
“India’s size also relates to its media landscape. According to most recent data as of 31st March, 2018, there were over 118,239 publications registered with the Registrar of Newspapers, which include over 36,000 weekly magazines alone. There are over 550 FM radio stations in the country and, according to the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, over 880 satellite TV channels, including over 380 which claim to be television channels broadcasting “news and current affairs”. The number of news websites operating in India is simply unfathomable.”
However, this vast number of media outlets and the country’s cultural and ethnic richness does not automatically translate into a variety in supply. The Media Ownership Monitor indicates rather the opposite – a significant trend towards concentration and, ultimately, control of content and public opinion.
Similarly, regional language media markets are highly concentrated. Our findings show that, in each of those market segments, the respective top two newspapers concentrate more than half of the readership shares or more. For example, out of five Tamil newspapers, the top two titles combine a readership share of two thirds. Similarly, the newspapers Eanadu and Sakshi manage to reach 71.13% of audiences in the Telugu language market. This trend has been observed and validated across all regional markets including Bengali, Oriya, Punjabi, Kannada, Gujarati, Urdu, Marathi and Assamese.
Most of the leading media companies are owned by large conglomerates that are still controlled by the founding families and that invest in a vast array of industries other than media.
In the radio sector, India’s state-controlled broadcaster All India Radio (AIR) has a nationwide monopoly on radio news. AIR is the largest radio network in the world covering a wide spectrum of languages and socio-economic groups. In India, private broadcasters who run FM radio stations have the licence to provide music and entertainment content but are barred from producing news.
Audience data for India’s television market was not available as in India it is considered a corporate or industry secret, rather than a public resource. The relevant entity – BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) – declined to provide the data repeatedly. BARC publishes the weekly impressions for top 5 Television broadcasters in news genre across 10 language markets (Hindi, English, Marathi, Telugu, Bengali, Kannada, Oriya, Assamese, Malayalam, Tamil) on its website. However, they reserve all rights on the data and communicated to the MOM team that the data cannot be used in any form without their prior approval which the team failed to get.
The study also highlighted the regulatory flaws in controlling the media, particularly the electronic media.
“The high level of concentration comes as a result of considerable gaps in the regulatory framework to safeguard media pluralism and prevent media concentration. Neither specific means to measure nor thresholds to limit ownership concentration in print, television and the online sector are in place. The patches of regulation that exist do not seem to be properly implemented with the exception of the radio market where, however, India’s state-controlled broadcaster has a nationwide monopoly on radio news. Law in India does not regulate cross-media concentration either.”
It pointed out that some of the existing laws were adopted over a hundred years ago and continue regulating some aspects of media today, such as the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, which laid the ground for a government monopoly over the broadcast sector. As a result and regardless of seeming diversity and plurality of supply, the Indian media landscape is comprised of highly concentrated market segments.
In the absence of overarching regulation on media, self-regulatory bodies like BARC, News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) set the rules and effectively regulate the television market, catering exclusively to the interests of the industry that they represent.
The MOM team collected the data for their research from publicly available sources such as IRS (Indian Readership Survey,2017). The data and information on ownership structures and shareholders of media companies and related individual owners were obtained from the website of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA).
In addition, the research team sent out information requests to all investigated media companies, by registered mail and email, but none except for The Print have responded so far. The research is also based on a number of Right to Information requests (RTI) submitted to different state’s governments to collect data about public funds and advertising allocated to media.
The MOM was able to find owners of almost all media companies through an openly available database provided by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. The only company that remains unknown in terms of ownership and shareholding is Scroll Media Incorporation, registered in the US State of Delaware. Consequently, the shareholding structure of the company is not available.
Although transparency seems mostly achievable with some effort, it’s still important to note that ownership structures of almost all major media houses are characterized by highly complicated cross-shareholdings designed to either hide beneficial owners or to circumvent certain laws – or both.
For example, there are restrictions on the licenses of distribution networks in place by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, wherein a cap of 20 per cent has been imposed on a broadcaster’s or cable network company’s stake in a DTH (direct to home) business and vice versa. However, these regulations are not effectively implemented, as an example of the Essel group illustrates. As the owner of Zee Media, it controls both broadcast media and distribution networks such as Dish TV and Siti cable through a web of companies. Dish TV is also merging with Videocon D2H, another distribution network and the case is currently pending at Delhi High Court.
As opposed to ownership, market and audience data in the Television sector remain strictly hidden, as the industry association BARC refuses to disclose it publicly. This comes not only as a violation of best practice internationally, but also inhibits public accountability, research, and meaningful regulation, particularly concentration control.
The research also finds media establishment have political connection or ownership. According to it, the Indian market is not only comprised of highly concentrated media markets. Also, some of the leading outlets are controlled by individuals with political ties. As the MOM study shows, the majority of the media companies have a business and political affiliations and the more into regional level one dives, the more straightforward and visible the links are.
Odisha TV, for example, in the state of Odisha is owned by the Panda Family, Baijayant Jay Panda is the National Vice President and Spokesperson of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He has been a four-time Member of Parliament of India from the state of Odisha. However, he has lost in the recent 2019 elections. In the state of Assam, Riniki Bhuyan Sarma owns the Television station NewsLive. She is the wife of Himanta Biswa Sarma, a powerful cabinet minister in the BJP government in Assam. These are just a few examples of the convergence of politics and media. The resulting interdependence between media, business and politics presents a high risk to media freedom and pluralism in India.
One means of political leverage can be exerted by rewarding or punishing media outlets through the allocation or non-allocation of advertising by the government. This plays out at a national level, but even more critically at the state and local levels where many media outlets depend on it to survive and transparency is not guaranteed. No figures were available for government advertising on Television and the RTIs filed have yielded no results. In addition to public spending on advertising, also the political parties invest heavily and one of, if not the largest advertiser in the country is the ruling party BJP.
The study also pointed out towards the intimidating environment for journalist fraternity after the BJP-led government came to power in May 2014.
It says India’s ranking fell from 138 to 140 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2019 World Press Freedom Index. With at least six journalists killed in connection with their work, India was among the deadliest countries in the world for journalists in 2018. Many others were the targets of murder attempts, physical attacks, and threats. Attacks against journalists by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi increased in the run-up to general elections in the spring of 2019. Hate campaigns against journalists, including incitement to murder, are common on social networks and are fed by troll armies linked to the nationalist right.