The Big Picture- NDTV Ban: Media Freedom and National Interest
RIP: Girish Nikam 🙁
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry had ordered a blackout of the Hindi TV news channel NDTV India from the midnight of November 9th to midnight of November 10th, 2016. This is the first order of the Government under a newly amended provision of the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 which gives power to the Government to prohibit operation of a channel if it shows live coverage of any terror attack and the counter terror operations.
- The action against the channel was taken because it revealed strategically sensitive details during the terror attack on Pathankot airbase in January this year which could have potentially compromised national security. However, this action of Government has come in for severe criticism for impinging on the freedom of the press. The one-day ban on NDTV’s Hindi channel, widely condemned, was put on hold by Information and Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah Naidu. The decision came after theSupreme Court agreed to hear NDTV’s application for a stay on the ban.
- The question that arises here is who decides national security. It is the Government that takes the final call whether the security of the nation is breached or not or something is against national interest. There should be a committee that comprises of people who are responsible including journalists and politicians who have an aura of impartiality. Ideally, this should be the mechanism to decide whether national security has been breached or not.
- Though the Government can take a call on what constitutes or compromises national security but they cannot take a call on what to report and what not to report. In this particular case, all that is alleged against the channel is that they reported on certain anti-terrorist operations which were going on. All the information relating to operation was in the public domain and this was the reply given by NDTV to the show cause notice. So, when the information was already available in the public domain that too put out by the Government itself through press releases, NDTV cannot be held liable only for what it reported about the operation though at some instances, it could have been a little cautious. There was no legal basis for this ban.
- There is no law in this country which addresses broadcasting units or companies. One can apply for a license under the Telegraph Act of 1885. In 1995, the Supreme Court said that the Government of India should enact a law which addresses the broadcasting industry which is not in place till date. The right to free speech cannot be taken away without the authority of law. Cable TV Networks Regulation Act, 1995 does not apply to broadcasters. It applies to cable operators who transmit what broadcasters are publishing.
- There is a strong requirement of guidelines to be issued for all the channels informing them what should and should not be done at the time of a terrorist or counter terrorist attack because there was similar kind of reporting in other news channels and newspapers. Holding one channel liable for breaching national security is quite vague. As per the transcript of the report of Pahankot attack broadcasted on NDTV, the content contained what was said by senior military officers and information already provided by the Government.
Democracy lies in intense scrutiny of governmental action, especially action that infringes upon basic liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. National security is something which should mark the beginning of the debate and not an end of it.