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A Small Number of Companies and Conglomerates Dominate India’s media, Some Have Political Ties: RSF

Indian Prime Minister Modi’s recent election victory occurred within a surprisingly tight media space, comprised of the 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, says RSF (Reporters Without Borders).

The RSF says the production of media content and its distribution are becoming increasingly combined and, again, concentrated in the hands of a few.

It also notes that the media laws relating to concentration of ownership are fragmented, incoherent and largely ineffective – also because TV ratings remain intransparent 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.”

Sharing the key findings of the Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) (a research project carried out in India by RSF and the Delhi-based digital media company DataLEADS), it says “India is one of the biggest media markets in the world. However, the concentration of ownership of media shows that a handful of people own and control Indian media.”

The Media Ownership Monitor analysed 58 leading media outlets with the largest audience shares in India. The research 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.

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 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 social-economic groups. In India, private broadcasters who run FM radio stations have the license 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.

About the regulator flaws, the RSF says 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.

“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.”

According to the RSF, “In the absence of overarching regulation on media, self-regulatory bodies like BARC, the only entity to measure television audience, caters exclusively to the interests of the industry that they represent.”

“Although other self-regulatory bodies, such as News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) set the rules and effectively regulate the television market without a mandate to control market concentration can self-regulation be enough to maintain a healthy media market?”

The RSF, however, says 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.”

But the RSF noted: “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.”

And there is political influence as well, as the RSF said “some of the leading outlets are controlled by individuals with political ties”. And many of them are associated with the ruling BJP.

“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,” the RSP notes.

“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.”

Meanwhile, there is violence against journalists as well. “India’s ranking fell from 138 to 140 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 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.”

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