At a ceremony celebrating excellence in Indian journalism on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi harked back to the 1975 Emergency, when civil liberties suffered at the hands of the then Indira Gandhi government. “Every generation must keep reflecting on the Emergency period in an unbiased manner so that no future political leader can even wish to commit the same sin,” said Modi. Even as the prime minister spoke of the Emergency, his government was attempting to stifle the press. Irony died a thousand deaths. On the following day, the Centre banned NDTV’s Hindi channel from being aired for a day on November 10. It had allegedly aired sensitive information during the militant attack on the Pathankot airbase in January. As per reports, the Union government has said that the channel will have to go off air “for violating the Cable TV Act”, which limits what the media can report during major national security-related events. It is the first time that the government has invoked this specific piece of legislation to take a news channel off the air. Some experts have even pointed to the Telegraph Act of 1885, which confers restrictive, yet arbitrary powers on the state over the media. Of course, comparisons to the Emergency seem a bit exaggerated considering the lengths to which the Congress government in 1975 had muzzled the press. Nonetheless, such a step does represent the same mindset that introduced the Emergency. "The decision to take the channel off the air for a day is a direct violation of the freedom of the media and therefore the citizens of India and amounts to harsh censorship imposed by the government reminiscent of the Emergency," the Editors Guild of India said in a statement. It also sought "an immediate withdrawal of the ban order".
In response to the outrage expressed by liberal sections of the press, individual sections of the pro-government press have sought to invoke what the Supreme Court said on the media’s role during the 26/11 terror attack. In a judgement that finally sealed Ajmal Kasab’s fate for his role in the Mumbai terror attacks, a two-judge bench had admonished the electronic media for its coverage of the said event in November 2008. “Any attempt to justify the conduct of the TV channels by citing the right to freedom of speech and expression would be totally wrong and unacceptable in such a situation,” the two-judge bench had said. “The freedom of expression, like all other freedoms under Article 19, is subject to reasonable restrictions. An action tending to violate another person’s right to life guaranteed under Article 21 or putting the national security in jeopardy can never be justified by taking the plea of freedom of speech and expression.” What the government’s supporters seem to have forgotten is that no ban was imposed on TV channels after the 26/11 terror attack. The government could have exercised the option of taking the news channel to court for “irresponsible media coverage”, instead of imposing a unilateral ban. Balancing national security a free speech is a tricky process, and there are many potential problem areas, such as the kind of restrictions to be imposed and incidents that would be categorised as extraordinary. Imposing a ban to address these problem areas not only reeks of authoritarianism but also comes in the way of the media’s commitments to its consumers, who expect accurate reporting of news. Finally, one can choose not to take the court's views on the subject as gospel truth. Besides questions of press freedom, the irony here is that the Centre had granted permission to the Pakistani investigating team to visit the Pathankot airbase earlier this year to collect "evidence" of the terror attack. Press freedom in India, although a lot better than other countries, is poor compared to the standards expected of a thriving democracy.
According to the 2016 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders ranked India at 133 among 180 countries. It isn’t the first time that the BJP government has sought to impose its will on the press. Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju had expressed the government’s position with perfect clarity earlier this week. “First of all we should stop this habit of raising doubt, questioning the authorities and the police,” Rijiju told journalists on Tuesday. “This is not a good culture. But what we have been observing in India that the people have developed this habit of raising unnecessary doubts and questions.” These comments aimed at the many issues that arose surrounding an alleged encounter in Madhya Pradesh earlier this week. The Centre acted on this sentiment last year when it served a notice to a Gujarati channel for objectionable programme content aimed at a leader holding an "esteemed office". That leader was Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the channel, GSTV, had asked whether Modi was misusing Gandhi’s legacy. “The way it has criticised him in the news item seems a deliberate attempt to malign his reputation which is repugnant of the esteemed office he holds," said the government’s notice. Among other things, the notice also went on to say, "…the channel says this leader initiated the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan but does he actually believe in Gandhian ideology or is he just using his name to earn respect”. Well, the Union government seems to think that “esteemed offices” are above criticism.
Press freedom in India also appears to be distributed rather unevenly. Media outlets located in the national capital and those backed by well-known brands, usually possess the freedom to criticise the government without fear of repression. But in conflict zones like Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast and Chhattisgarh, a state ban on regional publications usually, goes unnoticed. In targeting one of the most well-established brands in television media, the Modi government has made its intentions clear and stated rather unequivocally what it thinks of press freedom.