India’s public broadcaster announced a two-year contract with a little known news agency with RSS ties. This is the clearest sign of the government’s intention to use Doordarshan, Air India Radio—and, most importantly, DD FreeDish as its ideological mouthpiece. The decision may well reshape the landscape of TV news.
Researched by: Rachel John & Priyanka Gulati
What happened here?
First, the big deal: Prasar Bharati signed a two-year contract with Hindusthan Samachar—which will supply at least 100 news stories a day. This will include a minimum of 12 national news stories and 40 “local stories” in regional languages. That’s a lot of stories—but they come at a relatively modest price of Rs 7.7 crore per year. In comparison, India’s largest news wire—the Press Trust of India—charged the broadcaster an annual fee of Rs 9 crore.
The bigger deal: The agreement was inked after Prasar Bharati cancelled its contracts with two leading news agencies—Press Trust of India (PTI) and United News Of India (UNI) in 2020. So Hindusthan Samachar appears to be the primary source of news wire reports as of now.
The Prasar Bharati rationale: The public broadcaster points out that Hindusthan Samachar is the only wire service that offers content in 11 languages, including Assamese, Odia and Nepali. Its channels need a “versatile news wire”—and officials insist that this is “the only reason PTI was replaced.”
The other reason: Hindusthan Samachar started providing its content for free in 2017—on an “evaluation basis.” In 2020, HS was put on a rolling one-year contract for a sum of Rs 2 crore—but content in six languages was still cost-free. As far as Prasar Bharati is concerned, this is a routine renewal of an existing contract—following existing rules of regulation—to “ensure people are always up to date with authentic information.”
The worry is that this agency has RSS links, yes?
Yes. Hindusthan Samachar’s origin story is dyed in saffron. It was founded in 1948 by Shivram Shankar, also known as Dada Saheb Apte—a senior RSS pracharak who also helped found the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. He became its first secretary-general.
Mission statement: The agency’s founding goal was clear: “The country needed a news agency that would not only cater news through its own languages but was also inspired, motivated and informed by a spirit of true bharatiya nationalism.”
The lean years: The Indira Gandhi regime did not take kindly to the RSS—or any organisation associated with it:
The news of HS used to make Indira Gandhi’s government uncomfortable, so we were always targeted by them. During the Emergency and the Jaiprakash Narayan movement, we became the enemy of [her] government. She decided to finish HS.
During the Emergency, Gandhi cavalierly merged a number of news wires—including HS, PTI and UNI—to create a single agency called Samachar under the control of the government. That didn’t last either—but the agency remained in the doldrums until 1999—when RSS leader Shrikant Joshi attempted to revive it.
The great comeback: Happy days kicked off in full swing in 2016—when the RSS handed over the agency’s control to Ravindra Kishore Sinha. It was an interesting choice. Sinha is a former Rajya Sabha MP and the owner of Security and Intelligence Services (SIS)—a private security company. Sinha claims he started his career as a trainee at HS but has spent most of his life helming SIS—which claims to be a billion dollar company and the #1 security solutions provider in India. SIS hefty resources soon restored Hindusthan Samachar’s fortunes—and it moved into swanky offices in Noida owned by Sinha.
The RSS as mentor: According to former employees, RSS leaders came each year to the office to “guide” the team—and they, in turn, were often sent to RSS locations to receive more gyaan. The agency also has a standing instruction to never support “anti-national activity, and we will keep working with our faith in Gau, Gaon, Ganga and Gayatri.”
Perfect synergy: A Prasar Bharati official once admitted to News Laundry: “The reason for not subscribing to Hindusthan Samachar was their shallow content. The reports were shoddy and were completely skewed towards a political party.” But all that may have changed with Prasar Bharati’s new structure. In 2020, the government decided to set up a new recruitment board—so the public broadcaster could ‘independently’ choose its leaders. It then appointed Jagadish Upasane as its chairman:
Upasane has direct links with RSS-affiliated bodies. He heads the Bharat Prakashan, which is responsible for the publication of RSS-affiliated papers Panchajanya and Organiser. Upasane’s brother is a BJP spokesperson in Chattisgarh and his mother was a Jana Sangh MLA from Raipur in the 1950s.
Upasane can no doubt be relied on to pick leaders of Prasar Bharati who share the same worldview.
Where HS is now: Sinha left in 2019 in a huff—after his political ambitions for a BJP Lok Sabha seat went unfulfilled. But the agency appears to be thriving with 22 news bureaus and 600 correspondents spread across the country. The editor is Jitendra Tiwari who earlier worked at an RSS-owned weekly. And the board is chaired by Arvind Mardikar—who seems to enjoy a cosy relationship with the organisation, as well.
And why did Prasar Bharati dump PTI?
Because it has proved difficult to control.
What you need to know: PTI is India’s largest news agency—and commands 90% of the news agency market. The non-profit organisation is run by a board of directors—whose members are owners of the country’s largest publications—including Indian Express, Anand Bazaar Patrika and Malayala Manorama. The current chair is ABP chief Aveek Sarkar. The agency is not known for being anti-establishment—and has long enjoyed a good relationship with the government in power. That changed when the BJP took power in 2014.
The first clash: took place in 2016—when PTI’s CEO and Editor announced his intention to resign. The government—allegedly led by then finance minister Arun Jaitley—attempted to install an editor of its choice. But the move was openly rejected at an emergency meeting of the PTI board. A member said:
[Former BJP president] L.K. Advani famously said that when newspapers were asked to bend during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, they crawled. This time, when PTI was indicated to crawl, it stood up strongly and defiantly.
The government then did its bit to curtail PTI’s reach and clout. Prasar Bharati refused to renew the standing contract in 2017—and even started its own news agency Prasar Bharati News Services. But the relationship remained mostly intact—though on an ad hoc year-to-year basis.
The open battle: Things went entirely south in 2020—when clashes with Chinese troops on the Ladakh border grabbed the headlines. PTI carried an interview with the Chinese ambassador—who claimed: “The incident was completely instigated by the Indian side and the responsibility does not lie with the Chinese side.” Prasar Bharati officials immediately moved to cut ties, saying: “PTI’s anti-national reporting makes it no longer tenable to continue [the] relationship.” The Press Club of India fired back:
The government gives the impression of working for the dismemberment of the Press Trust of India (PTI), India's premier news agency which has established a name for itself for being a professional news establishment. A demolition exercise of such magnitude has been undertaken through its proxy, Prasar Bharati.
But none of this high-pitched outrage has had much effect. And on Monday, Prasar Bharati finally made the breakup official by moving on to a new relationship—with Hindusthan Samachar.
C’mon, does Prasar Bharati really matter?
Let’s put Prasar Bharati aside for now—and look at what happens when the government plays favourites.
The hidden iron fist: While all the attention has been on PTI, Prasar Bharati also dumped United News of India—which was already on “ventilator support” due to declining subscriptions. Prasar Bharati’s decision dealt the fatal blow. The reality is that Indian media is heavily reliant on government patronage—which gives it immense power:
News perhaps accounts for a sixth of the advertising revenue for TV, but it has always had a very high level of dependence on government, public sector and state ads. These businesses survive on ads, the subscription revenue is not significant enough. If you were to take ads out of the account of a newspaper or TV channel, it would not survive.
Cutting ad spends, cancelling contracts have huge impacts on the bottomline of a news outlet—and can often decide who stays in business.
The very big upside: While the government has plenty of sticks in its arsenal, its carrots are no less powerful. Take the example of Asian News International—i.e ANI. The service has a near monopoly on news video reports sold to television channels. A large part of that clout comes from its exclusive access to government leaders, events and press conferences:
At this point, ANI has more access to the government than Doordarshan and the Press Trust of India. It works well for them. Whatever needs to be covered and conveyed nationwide can be done with a single company.
FYI: ANI is one of the few profitable news businesses in the country.
Now, about Prasar Bharati: Doordarshan is no longer the old-fashioned free TV channel that you remember. Prasar Bharati is betting big on a satellite service called DD FreeDish—which offers 166 private entertainment and news channels—at zero cost! FreeDish gained millions of subscribers during the pandemic—among less affluent, rural Indians. It continues to soar in popularity—and will soon have 50 million viewers.
The big assist: The government is spending Rs 25 billion (2,500 crores) on modernising Prasar Bharati. It plans to up the number of FreeDish channels to 250—and distribute 800,000 set top boxes in remote, tribal, and border areas. Or even better: there is a plan to do away with set-top boxes entirely—by mandating satellite tuners inside TV sets. Quote to note: “[Prasar Bharati] knows the future of television could soon be in its hands. It could be a virtual monopoly.”
The bottomline: Public broadcasting in India has always been highly compromised. But technology now offers the government unprecedented reach and influence—which will prove priceless come election time. So yeah, there’s a good reason why Hindusthan Samachar is bad news all around.
The Wire and The Print have the most details on the decision to sign the Hindusthan Samachar deal. NewsLaundry has the best and most detailed profile of Hindusthan Samachar. On the battle with PTI, read The Wire and NewsLaundry. For the future of DD FreeDish, see our Big Story on the death of cable TV.