Away from his home state and deprived of quality content, my uncle, who moved from Punjab to Bengaluru, tells me that he got a new set-top box for his TV just so he could view Day & Night News. He cannot access the channel any longer. Day & Night News is a Chandigarh-based news channel catering to Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the Punjabi diaspora. It was forced to scale down operations from 1 August. The reason given by Kanwar Sandhu, the managing editor, in his final address to the audience was that the channel was unable to bear the burden of the carriage fee. About 60 employees lost their jobs. In a free market, this could seem like a story of a company that could not manage its finances and had to close shop. But there is more here than meets the eye. Over the past three years, the channel has been fighting a lonely battle to protect its freedom to reach its audiences. Finally, it lost the battle.
In the metropolitan cities, we have the direct-to-home (DTH) service providers but outside these cities, cable operators have penetrated about 75 to 80 percent of the market. These operators charge their customers for the content, but they also charge the TV channels a heavy carriage fee depending upon which band the channel chooses to relay its signal. The payment varies between Rs 2-5 crore per year. Day & Night News chose a band on the higher end, which had a higher tariff. It was confident of recovering its investment.
But after the first few weeks, the channel noticed interruptions in the transmission from the cable operator‚Äôs end whenever content was beamed against the state government, or in favour of opposition parties, or even such political developments as Manpreet Badal leaving the Akali Dal. Sometimes the channel would be scrambled. When Day & Night News took up the issue with the cable operators, they were fobbed off with lame excuses like slots not being available on the band they had chosen, or infrastructure issues. Finally, they were told to lower their volume to be assured good transmission quality.
The real reasons, of course, had nothing to do with technology. The media in Punjab has always known that there are limits to its notions of free speech, that rocking the boat comes with consequences, regardless of your channel‚Äôs stature. In the recent past, NDTV was blocked during the state elections. The BBC hasn‚Äôt been spared either. Last year, Aaj Tak was blocked in the state for a month because it showed the chief minister enjoying a movie while the Ferozepur floods raged. Zee Punjabi ran into trouble the moment it dared to criticise the incumbent government. The Tribune, the state‚Äôs oldest and largest-selling English daily, hasn‚Äôt received a single government advertisement in the past year. Punjabi news channels understand this and opt for self-censorship; it is an unwritten rule in the industry that the government of the day is, if not untouchable, to be touched only with kid gloves.
As Jagtar Singh Bhullar, from the channel‚Äôs Punjab news bureau, says, ‚ÄúWhen we cover news, we also cover the government. If the government has not performed, it will show up in our coverage. The problem with Punjab is that we have a vacuum, there is no space for the voice of the people. What our channel did was provide that space.‚ÄĚ The channel stood by its content. In spite of their agreement, in February 2011, the operators bumped the channel from their cable network. The Cable Television Network (Regulation) Amendment Act does not provide for any redress in case the cable operator defaults on the agreement.
That is when Day & Night News found out that most cable operators were actually a front for one company, namely Fastway Transmissions Private Limited. They filed a case with the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) and the Competition Commission of India (CCI). TDSAT agreed with the channel‚Äôs plea. The CCI, in its order dated 3 July 2012, ruled in favour of the channel. It imposed a penalty of 8.04 crore on Fastway Transmissions Private Limited and directed them to ‚Äúcease and desist‚ÄĚ from indulging in ‚Äúanti-competitive practices‚ÄĚ.
Gurdip Singh, the owner of Fastway Transmissions, insists that there are still other local operators like Datacom and Hathway. He claims, ‚ÄúFastway has taken a stay order from the High Court.‚ÄĚ This means it does not need to dismantle its monopoly. I asked to see the stay order but have not yet received a copy. On independent checking, it is clear that Fastway Transmissions is the dominant cable company in Patiala, Bathinda, Amritsar, Jalandhar and other major towns and cities and villages of Punjab. The state government‚Äôs apparatus has failed in making Fastway Transmission comply with the CCI‚Äôs decision.