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വായന

08 November, 2016

Bid to tame free media

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Modi government last week ordered a Hindi news channel to cease transmission for 24 hours this week for contravening the year-old broadcast guidelines on live coverage of terror attacks. 

The unprecedented action has the making of a surgical strike calculated to tame sections of the media which have been reluctant to go the whole hog with the government and its Hindutva supporters who constantly invoke national sentiments for partisan purposes. 

The channel which has been handed down the punishment is NDTV India, a Hindi channel belonging to the oldest and arguably the most professional of the private national networks. The cause of action, ostensibly, is a report it telecast during the terrorist attack on the Pathankot air force base in January.

According to the government, an inter-ministerial committee found that in a near-live telecast on January 4 NDTV India “revealed strategically sensitive details.” Its report had said, “Two terrorists are still alive and they are next to an ammunition depot, And the jawans who are under fire are concerned that if the militants make it to the ammunition depot it will be even harder to neutralise them.”

This information was given to the media earlier by security officials themselves, and other channels and newspapers too had reported it. However, NDTV India was singled out for punitive action.

The inter-ministerial committee rejected the channel’s contention that other media too had carried similar reports on the specious ground that it had mentioned the exact location of the terrorists with regard to the ammunition depot.

As Information Minister, the task of defending the action against the channel fell on M Venkaiah Naidu, who has an infinite capacity to confuse issues in the guise of clarifying them.

Within 24 hours of the government order against the channel, the Editors Guild of India condemned the action, describing it as reminiscent of the Emergency of 1975. Naidu dubbed it a belated response and an afterthought.

He said that during 2005-2014 the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had directed various channels on 21 different occasions to suspend telecasts for periods ranging from one day to two months. The comparison was odious for they were penalised not for airing any news reports but for showing obscene or violent movies.

There could be no UPA precedent for the Modi government’s action since the rule relating to live telecast of anti-terrorist operations did not exist in its time. It was brought in by the present regime last year through an amendment to the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995.

The entire opposition and the entire media barring the government’s partisan supporters raised their voice against the action against NDTV India. That, however, didn’t prevent Venkaiah Naidu from claiming that the people were broadly with the government on this issue.

India is perhaps the only country which does not have a law to regulate the working of the electronic media. After it came to light that the live telecasts of the 2008 Mumbai attack had provided the terrorists’ handlers in Pakistan with valuable inputs on real time basis, there was general agreement in the country on the need for a law to curb irresponsible competition-driven coverage. At that stage, two groups of channel owners set up separate bodies of their own to look into complaints against their coverage. This was done to forestall the creation of a regulatory mechanism by the government. 

The self-regulation experiments have been a failure. The arbitrary and ham-handed manner in which the government has acted against NDTV India reveals the dangers inherent in vesting the regulatory power in the government. 

The action against NDTV India has come more than 10 months after the indicted report. Viewed in the context of calls by ministers to journalists to put national interest above freedom of expression, it can be seen as a not-so-subtle attempt to send a message to all media.

The attempt to juxtapose national interest with freedom of expression is mischievous as there is actually no conflict between them. The government’s discomfort arises from the conflict between its own political interest and exercise of freedom by the citizens and the media.

On Saturday, in a bid to ward off criticism that NDTV India has been singled out for punishment, the government announced that a regional channel of Assam has also been asked to go off the air for 24 hours --for revealing the name of a minor who had been tortured.

On Monday, following a protest meeting by journalists in New Delhi and the filing of a petition by NDTV in the Supreme Court challenging the order, the government put it on hold pending a review of the decision.

A mechanism is needed to regulate the working of channels. It is not a task that can be left to politicians and bureaucrats. A credible statutory mechanism with due representation for media professionals is needed.  -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 8, 2016.

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