New Delhi, November 7, 2016 (Alochonaa): Opinions have been flying around thick and fast on the issue of the twenty four hour ban imposed on NDTV India, a Hindi news channel of the NDTV group led by Prannoy Roy. The Editors’ Guild, the News Broadcasters Association of India and many other associations of electronic and print journalists have come out to issue strong condemnations against the order issued under the Cable TV Network (Regulation) Act by the Inter Ministerial Committee of the Government of India that will effectively put NDTV India off air for a period of twenty four hours as a penalty for violating broadcasting standards laid out for reporting on live incidents of military conflicts and encounters. Many of them have compared the action to the days of Emergency imposed in 1975 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, when the media was heavily censored. A prominent anchor of NDTV India went ahead and invited mime artists as another symbolic protest (followers of this anchor would recall his black screen on another divisive issue that took the entire country by storm earlier this year). Political parties have also jumped into the fray, weaving this incident into a larger narrative of fascism creeping into India.
Legally, the case pertained to reporting from a very close range during the a terrorist attack on the Pathankot Air Force Base that took place in January this year, did not defer the live broadcast as required under the Cable TV Network (Regulation) Act amendment, which was brought in post 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. The charge against NDTV India’s broadcast was that it gave away sensitive details that could have helped terrorists through their handlers somewhere else. This was not an allegation out of thin air; it was found, much to everyone’s horror, that handlers of terrorists involved with the 26/11attacks on Mumbai in 2008 were using live updates from Indian news channels to provide further instructions. The present case, as per media reports, followed due procedure, wherein NDTV India’s management was given ample time to respond to the show cause notice issued in this matter, as one media report highlighted, and the response was given personally under the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC). While one outspoken former Supreme Court judge, also a former head of Press Council of India, has questioned the very legality of such measures, NDTV India has the right to seek recourse through the courts against this ban. So far, there has been no evident action from the NDTV group to appeal against the ban.
While the legality of the judgment can certainly be questioned by the judiciary, there is a lot of talk of freedom of expression being curbed in India. The problem with this argument is not so much with the argument itself; there are a lot of instances that have happened across India that could force people to think twice about the freedom of the media in India. However, the idea of a ‘curb’ is very loosely used by electronic journalists in particular, many of whom barely move out of the confines of New Delhi despite being ‘senior journalists’, and have themselves exhibited enough cases of intolerance towards an alternative opinion or criticism. There have been several instances where electronic journalists and news channels have exhibited irresponsible behaviour by indulging in reporting erroneous facts and not retracting stories. A lot of them had exhibited absolute double standards on the issue of draconian Section 66(A) of the IT Act, wherein any excuse could be sought to file criminal charges. The political opposition questioning the government on the ban however is equally culpable of duplicity, and does not even have a fig leaf to cover its excuses. Various states where opposition parties are in government have seen cases of journalist murders, financial arm twisting of print media dependent on government money for advertising revenues, as well as jailing of journalists and cartoonists among others for not reporting facts in a convenient narrative. In Bihar, journalists not liked by the Chief Minister Nitish Kumar are dropped by newspapers at the drop of a hat, a case seen even in Delhi when one editor earned the ire of Arvind Kejriwal and his party. J Jayalalitha, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, is renowned for using the entire might of the state machinery to clamp down on any criticism, while under the rule of Mamata Bannerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, or the Communist opposition in the past, several disappearances and murders have been witnessed. Even the Chhattisgarh government, ruled by the same party that rules at the national level, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been accused of clamping down on journalists. Another problem is the highly casual use of the word fascism by certain sections of the media, and comparisons to Nazi Germany are drawn up at the drop of a hat. This analogy business only betrays the absolute intellectual bankruptcy of the Indian media professionals, as the term or its implications have just not been understood. India is not a banana republic where people get whipped off streets only to end up in car boots. Neither do we have the case of people being mobilized to be in a constant state of war like the military state of Pakistan, nor do we have wholesale uprooting and destruction of cultural symbols like Mao’s China. India’s people are far too democratic in spirit, and this is something hardly anyone realizes. The only time India came close to being a fascist state was between 1975 and 1977, when Emergency had been declared in India by a government of Indira Gandhi led Congress , which today sits in the opposition, reduced to a pittance in the National Assembly.
The question of what constitutes ethical and ‘correct’ journalism in India has been in discussion in India. Several occasions have arisen in the recent times where journalists have been questioned fiercely for shoddy, incomplete or biased reporting in India. Television journalists in India have particularly come under attack on social media, and not without cause – often times, the quality of reporting and the discretion exercised has left much to be desired for. Conflict situation reporting in India has been problematic, and the methodology, practice and limits to be set are questions that the electronic media has been grappling with. There has been a lot of talk about whether governments should be setting standards on how reporting can be done, and calls for a regulatory body have come up time and again. There have been counter calls of self regulation, as any move by the government has often been viewed as an attempt to stifle freedom of expression, remembering the dark days of the Emergency. However, as we have seen, self regulation has still not evolved; guidelines are violated at large, and any attempts to censure channels by associations has only shown how toothless these bodies are as exemplified by India TV led by Rajat Sharma walking out of one such body. The race for grabbing maximum eyeballs has not only brought down the discourse level, but also the standard of reporting itself. Therefore, the question of having a legally recognized media regulatory authority to oversee the operations of the media in general and the electronic media in particular becomes a tempting idea. Such a question, however, need serious debate and deliberation at the legislative and the public level, where media trust currently is not high. As the outspoken former Supreme Court Justice, Markandey Katju, had also argued once, regulation is distinct from control, and is imperative, for
“while there should be freedom for the media and not control over it, this freedom must be exercised in a manner not to adversely affect the security of the state, public order, morality, etc. No right can be absolute, every right is subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest.”
*Rohit Pathania is a development professional, and works in the area of energy and environment. He is a keen observer of the political and media space.
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