Insights into Editorial: After calls to uphold press freedom, one-day ban on NDTV India put on hold
The government has decided to put on hold the one-day ban on Hindi news channel NDTV India, a week after announcing to take it off air for allegedly compromising national security with its coverage of a terrorist attack on an air force base.
NDTV India was asked to go off the air after the government said the channel revealed sensitive details during its coverage of a militant attack on the Pathankot airbase in January. This crucial information could have been readily picked up by the militants’ handlers and jeopardised national security.
This was the first time a channel was asked to stop broadcasting over concerns about national security.
Under what legal provisions did the government impose the one-day ban on NDTV India?
It was banned under the provisions of The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995.
Section 20(3) of the Cable TV Act says: “Where the Central Government considers that any programme of any channel is not in conformity with the prescribed programme code referred to in section 5 or the prescribed advertisement code referred to in section 6, it may regulate or prohibit the transmission or re-transmission of such programme.”
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry found that NDTV India had violated 6(1)(p) programme code.
What does Rule 6(1)(p) of the Programme Code say?
Rule 6(1)(p) prohibits live coverage of anti-terrorism activities: “No programme should be carried (which) contains live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces wherein media coverage shall be restricted to periodic briefing by an officer designated by the appropriate Government, till such operation concludes.”
When was this Rule introduced?
The point 6(1)(p) was introduced by an amendment to The Cable Television Network Rules last year, which came into force in March 2015. Following the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, between November 2008 and March 2015, the government issued five advisories to television channels on the coverage of such incidents.
To whom does the Programme Code apply? Is it binding?
The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Ordinance was promulgated in 1994, which gave the government powers to issue Rules for Cable TV. The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995 made the Rules introduced in 1994 binding on all cable networks which are either downlinked to, or uplinked from, India.
What is the main allegation now?
According to the I&B Ministry, the channel broadcast a report which stated that two terrorists were alive and were very close to the ammunition depot. The government said this gave away sensitive information and could have helped the terrorists.
What NDTV says?
NDTV claims that all such information was already in the public domain, already reported by newspapers and by other news channels. The channel also said it reported after briefings by various officers at different times, and based on already available reports.
So how does all of this fit in with the constitutional freedoms guaranteed under Article 19?
India does not have specific laws protecting the freedom of the media. But journalists and journalism thrive on the broader freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. Article 19 gives all citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression. However, the first amendment in 1951 put “reasonable restrictions” on the use of Article 19 with regard to topics such as the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
Opposition to this move:
Top media bodies have expressed solidarity with NDTV and condemned the Centre’s move, saying it sends a “dangerous signal” to the entire press, the freedom of which is already under “increasing threat” in the country.
It is also being seen as a direct violation of the freedom of the media and therefore the citizens of India.
How the govt defends its move?
But the government has defended the action, saying many other channels were banned in the past and that free speech couldn’t be absolute or override national security.
Also, disclosure of sensitive information has several ramifications such as causing alarm and de-moralisation of citizens and security forces, collateral damage to critical assets, apprehension among families of those serving in combat.
But, why the ban seems to be illegal?
According to the Rule 6 (1)(p) of the Programme Code of the Cable TV Network Rules 1994, under which it has been imposed, “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 periodic briefing by an officer designated by the appropriate Government, till such operation concludes.”
The above rule states that a ban is applicable on broadcasting ‘live coverage’ of anti-terrorist operations by security forces.
“Live coverage means showing scenes of security forces searching or pursuing terrorists, or fighting with them. Mere reporting about anti terrorist operations is not live coverage. NDTV had only reported about anti terrorist operations, but had not shown any scenes of security forces chasing or fighting with terrorists. So there was no live coverage. The ban was therefore clearly illegal,” say few experts.
The decision by the government to make Hindi news channel NDTV India go off air for a day does set an unhealthy precedent.
- The media does need regulation, especially in an era of “breaking news” and click-bait journalism, where responsible and fair coverage is usually the first victim of the pursuit of ratings and traffic.
- In democracies, this should take the form of self-regulation. If that doesn’t work, as it sometimes hasn’t in India, regulation should be the domain of a quasi-judicial independent body.
- One of journalism’s original objectives and ideals is to speak truth to power. By giving itself the powers to force news channels to go off air, the government is laying itself wide open to accusations of trying to, at worst, muzzle or, at best, influence, the news.
India is one of the few democracies in the world where defamation can be a criminal offence (in addition to being a civil one). Both traditionally offered adequate legal recourse to penalise the media. In recent times, there has been a demand from several quarters for more regulation. An independent regulator would serve that purpose. This is not the government’s job — nor is it, in any right-minded society, the government’s remit. Indian media should also strive to improve the quality of its self-regulatory institutions and frame better guidelines to deal with conflict coverage.