In a compelling development, the Centre has decided to put on hold its order requiring NDTV India to go off the air for one day on November 9 as a penalty for allegedly revealing strategically sensitive information during its broadcast of the terror attack on the Pathankot airbase in January. Despite its decision, Information and Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah Naidu defended the government’s decision and dismissed criticism that the government was trying to silence those who were critical of it. It seems apparent that the Centre’s decision to review the ban came as the channel moved the apex court against the order. The court has deferred the hearing of a case challenging the government’s one-day ban to December 5. A three-judge bench argued that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is still in the process of reviewing its ban order and the court’s interference at this stage would be unnecessary. As per the ban order, the Hindi news channel had violated Rule 6(1) (p) of the Programme Code of the Cable TV Network Rules, 1994. Rule 6(1) (p) states: “No programme should be carried in the cable service which contains live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces, wherein media coverage shall be restricted to a periodic briefing by an officer designated by the appropriate Government, till such operation concludes.” Going by the language of this particular provision, plain reporting about anti-terror operations is not live coverage. Former Supreme Court judge, Justice (Retd) Markandey Katju, believes that there was no “live coverage”, akin to how news channels covered security operations during the 26/11 terror attack. Thus, Katju believes that the one-day ban is “illegal”. Going by the evidence available, the government’s case against the Hindi news channel seems weak.
If the Centre decided to act against NDTV for revealing “sensitive information”, a similar ban notice should have been served to other news channels, including the government’s favourite India TV, headed by Rajat Sharma (he was awarded the Padma Bhushan last year). Reports indicate the “sensitive information” that NDTV India released was already out in the public domain. “Details of the strategic assets at the airbase had appeared in reports carried by newspapers before the broadcast on NDTV,” according to The Hoot, a leading media watchdog. While NDTV stands accused of “leaking sensitive strategic information”, other news channels seem to have carried “responsible reports” based on “periodic briefing by an officer designated by the appropriate Government”. Of course, this is patently false. Besides the odd government crony, broad sections of the media defended the channel and lashed out at the government for stifling free speech and expression. But going by Naidu’s reaction, the government seems to believe that its decision has the backing of the larger public. Even if the Centre has hypothetically received the public’s support, its decision still falls short on various counts. “When rulers see that decisions undermining fundamental rights receive no adverse reactions from the public, there was always the danger of such actions becoming the new normal,” according to an editorial on Scroll.in. However, the controversy surrounding the government’s ban order has also exposed the selective outrage and myopia of the Indian liberal intelligentsia. Journalists outside Delhi and Mumbai are consistently subject to censorship and attacks against freedom of speech. No one in media came out to defend the Kashmir Reader when it was forced out of print on October 2 by the J&K government on trumped up charges of inciting violence – when it was reporting what other news organisations were doing. Similarly, in Chhattisgarh, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh, journalists are constantly under attack by the local administration. If observers had genuinely cared about press freedom, they would have spoken out against arbitrary acts of press censorship against journalists outside the national capital.
In the midst of taking sides in the recent controversy, a critical discussion has been lost on the question of media regulation. It is an honest conversation the media must have with the government. Within most mature democracies, the broadcast media is often regulated by an independent body, and not by the government. In India, however, the media cries wolf towards any attempt at regulation, while successive governments always overstep their mark. “In a mature democracy a broadcast regulatory body is guaranteed its independence explicitly by law and sometimes also in the constitution,” says The Hoot in a recent editorial. Attempts have been made to recommend an independent regulator, in particular by the apex court. But neither the media nor the government has ever acted on these recommendations. Over the years, neither side has agreed on a legislation that would introduce statutory broadcast regulation for content. The self-regulatory mechanism set up by the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) is a joke. “If you had a statutory regulator the government would not have had the mandate to intervene,” The Hoot editorial goes on to add. “There should be, in a regulated media environment, at least a statutory complaints body empowered to take complaints from viewers and hand out decisions.” Unless both sides can work and agree on legislation to regulate content and Parliament pushes for an independent statutory media regulator, the press will remain subject to excessive governmental overreach.