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Published: Sunday June 8, 2014 MYT 1:10:02 AM
Updated: Sunday June 8, 2014 MYT 1:11:25 AM

Indian government vows to uphold freedom of expression

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's new government sought to ease concerns that freedom of expression is under threat on Saturday, promising to strengthen the independence of the state-run broadcaster and to consider allowing more foreign investment in Indian media.

    Fears for freedom of expression have grown this year, particularly after a controversial book on Hinduism was withdrawn from sale following criticism from hard line Hindus.

    The withdrawal of "The Hindus: An Alternative History" by academic Wendy Doniger in February by publisher Penguin came months before the Bharitiya Janata Party (BJP), a conservative Hindu nationalist party led by Narendra Modi, won a landslide election victory.

    The Information and Broadcasting Minister said he understood that many publishers feared prosecution under a law that bans acts intended to offend religious feeling, which Penguin said made it very difficult to uphold international standards of free expression.

"I am willing to meet publishers and listen to them," Prakash Javadekar told the TV channel Headlines Today.

Concerns that Modi's government will take a tougher line with the press and publishing industries are "absolutely unfounded", he said.

    Javadekar said the government will consider allowing foreign direct investment in India's news industry above an existing cap of 26 percent, although he did not believe in 100 percent foreign ownership.

    The government will also restructure the state-owned broadcaster to strengthen its editorial independence and improve accountability, so that it more closely resembles the British Broadcasting Corporation, Javadekar said.

    The BJP accused the previous government of meddling with the broadcaster after parts of an interview with Modi on the state-owned TV channel Doordarshan in April were allegedly removed. The then-government strongly denied any interference.

    India will also allow private FM radio broadcasters to run news bulletins from official and state-run providers before the end of the year, Javadekar said, although they would not immediately be allowed to produce their own news.

    While India has long had a thriving private newspaper industry, private and foreign broadcasters were only allowed to set up operations under economic reforms enacted in the 1990s. 

    Javadekar said he believed that a democracy did not need a ministry for information and broadcasting, and that his long-term aim was to make the ministry redundant.

(Reporting by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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