Courting Controversy

Crisis and controversy marked Smriti Irani’s tenure as information and broadcasting minister

From the fake news directive to the row with Prasar Bharati, the minister attracted criticism on several occasions.

On Monday, Smriti Irani was removed as head of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and replaced by her junior minister Rajyavardhan Rathore. After the mini cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Irani is back to the relatively low-profile textiles ministry.

Irani was given additional charge of the I&B ministry in July last year when M Venkaiah Naidu resigned from the post after being made vice-president. In 2016, she had been given the textiles ministry after being removed from the Ministry of Human Resources and Development.

Irani’s tenure as the Minister of Information and Broadcasting was marked by controversy. A month after she took charge, Irani objected to the Press Trust of India releasing a photograph of men wearing masks of Modi and Janata Dal (United) Chief Nitish Kumar on the occasion of Friendship Day. This came shortly after Kumar, the Bihar Chief Minister, left the alliance of the JD(U), Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress in that state to tie up with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance. The news agency told the minister that the men in the photographs were members of the two parties, but they apologised and withdrew the photographs from circulation.

In November last year, Irani’s ministry dropped Ravi Jadhav’s Nude and Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s S Durga from the Indian Panorama section of the 48th International Film Festival of India. This decision was allegedly made without the knowledge or consent of the jury that had selected the films. The move prompted several festival jury members, including its head, Sujoy Ghosh, to resign from the panel ahead of the festival. Irani did not explain her decision.

In December last year, the ministry issued an advisory asking television channels not to air advertisements promoting condoms between 6am and 10pm, holding them “indecent/inappropriate for viewing by children”. The order was widely criticised and the ministry later said that the ban was only on advertisements with “sexually explicit content”.

Irani was also criticised by Opposition leaders for staying silent during the controversy surrounding the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat. Staring early last year, right-wing groups such as the Rajput Karni Sena organised violent protests against the film’s release, claiming that it maligns the community with its representation of their legendary queen Padmavati. The protesting groups vandalised film sets and issued death threats against some members of the cast and crew.

Bhansali had to eventually change the film’s name from Padmavati to Padmaavat and release was delayed from December 1 to January 25. The run up to the movie’s release also saw violent protests and an unofficial ban on the film in several BJP-ruled states, despite being cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification, which is under the information and broadcasting ministry.

Prasar Bharati stand-off

In March, it was reported that Irani’s ministry had not released money to Prasar Bharati for January and February, forcing the public broadcaster to use contingency funds to pay salaries. According to a report in The Wire, Irani had blocked the funds after Prasar Bharati had pushed back against some of the ministry’s proposals. Chairperson Surya Prakash had refused to fill two key editorial posts with journalists recommended by the ministry, as the salaries suggested for them were too steep, and had also turned down a proposal to appoint a serving Indian Administrative Services officer as a full-time member on Prasar Bharati’s board.

The body had also turned down the ministry’s demand that Doordarshan pay a private company Rs 2.92 crore for covering IFFI. Doordarshan, which is the television broadcasting wing of Prasar Bharati, had reportedly claimed that the assignment need not have been outsourced as it had been covering the event all these years. Irani later clarified that the funds had been withheld because the autonomous body had not signed the required Memorandum of Understanding with the ministry. The money was released in April.

Irani was also left red-faced after Modi, in less than 15 hours, overturned her controversial fake news directive on April 3. The information and broadcasting ministry had issued new guidelines, ostensibly to curb the spread of misinformation, according to which a journalist accused of spreading fake news would lose their accreditation for 15 days till the matter was investigated by the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association. If the allegation was confirmed, the accreditation of that journalist would be suspended for six months for the first violation, one year in case of a second violation and permanently after a third. The directive was roundly criticised amid apprehensions that it could be misused to silence journalists without really tackling the widespread problem of fake news.

Most recently, the ministry was caught in a controversy over the National Film Awards, after it was announced that President Ram Nath Kovind would present only 11 out of 140 trophies, with Irani presenting the rest. The move was a departure from the tradition of the president personally felicitating award winners in the presence of the information and broadcasting minister. As a mark of protest, about 70 award winners skipped the ceremony at Vigyan Bhawan in New Delhi on May 3.

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