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BW Businessworld

Sun TV Hit By A ‘Security’ Baton

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The home ministry cannot force 33 channels off air based on a few criminal charges faced by the promoters, writes Gurbir Singh
 
THE HAWKS IN the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) have created a serious crisis for the media and entertainment industry. Around the first week of June, the MHA turned down ‘security clearance’ for the Kalanithi Maran-promoted Sun Group. This could lead to the south-based broadcaster losing its licence issued by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (I&B) and its 33 channels going off air.
 
The MHA’s case is that there are serious criminal cases pending against the Maran brothers —Kalanithi and former telecom minister Dayanidhi Maran — including the Aircel-Maxis investigation and an Enforcement Directorate case of money laundering. On the same grounds, earlier in March, the Sun Group’s 48 FM radio channels were denied security clearance. This has held up the much-awaited auction for the third phase of radio licences, as the I&B ministry has gone into a huddle with the MHA to decide on the status of the Sun Group as radio licence bidders. The radio industry is in a tizzy as the auction for 839 stations for over 200 cities has again gone into cold storage. 
 
The MHA has refused to budge despite the I&B ministry, and Arun Jaitley, the I&B minister, clearing the Sun Group. Even attorney general Mukul Rohtagi’s legal opinion in favour of the Sun Network has not moved Rajnath Singh. Worse, till date there is no official communication to the company on the denial of ‘security’ clearance, making it difficult for Sun to go to court. Meanwhile, Sun Network has been battered on the stock market with its stock plummeting from Rs 450 in April to its current Rs 280-285 range. 
 
 The Sun Group is no fly-by-night operation that started yesterday. Founded in 1993, it is a Rs 2,230 crore company by revenue, and notched up net profits of Rs 750 crore last fiscal. It employs 2,000 people, and is part of the cultural life, especially in the southern states, where its offering on more than 30 channels has become part of the daily fare. 
 
There is no denying that there are serious charges, especially against Dayanidhi Maran, who used his baton as telecom minister to force business contracts in exchange for sweet deals for himself and his brother’s business. And punishment should be meted out if the charges are proved. In law, individual promoters and the corporate entity they preside over are separate. The corporation is an amalgam of a wider body of investors serving an even larger community of consumers. Business operations developed over two decades cannot be shut down on account of the illegal actions of one or two persons at the helm. 
 
We are witnessing a public display of a divided government. While the I&B ministry has given a go-ahead, the  MHA is not moved. Logically, if the licensing authority for broadcasting is the I&B ministry, should not issues of safety and security be also decided by it? Such instances of the left hand working at cross-purposes with the right has put India at the bottom of the ‘ease-of-doing-business’ index. 
 
Then there is this whole paranoia about ‘security’ and micro-managing all communication operations. For broadcasting, while channel licenses are given for 10 years by the I&B ministry, the licensing rules require a security clearance from the MHA every three years. This also means submitting and getting the green signal from the MHA for all directors of the broadcasting company’s board. How are companies supposed to run entertainment and news operations under this ‘Big-Brother-is-watching-you’ dispensation?
 
The latest insistence of the home ministry on having the credentials of journalists vetted every year before according ‘accreditation’ is another example of a police-state paranoia. Rajnath Singh is relying on a dusty rule that was not implemented earlier; but perhaps the reason for applying it now is to teach a lesson to the  ‘uncontrollable’ news media. 
 
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 27-07-2015)