Muzzling voice, even for a while, is illegal



“Every generation must keep reflecting on the Emergency period in an unbiased manner so that no future
political leader can even wish to commit the same sin.” These were the words of prime minister Narendra Modi at the Ramnath Goenka Awards ceremony earlier this month. The awards for Excellence in Journalism are in the name of the person who had led the fight against press censorship during the Emergency.

It may be just a coincidence that even as the prime minister was underlining the need for freedom of the press, the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was issuing an order to blackout a leading Hindi news channel for a day on November 9 for allegedly violating government norms. The ministry’s directive followed an Inter Ministry Committee (IMC) ruling that it had divulged “strategically sensitive details” while covering January’s deadly attack on the Pathankot air base.

The Ministry said that the channel’s reportage revealed “information on the ammunition stockpiled in the airbase, MIGs, fighter planes, rocket launchers, mortars, helicopters, fuel tanks”, causing a potential threat to national security. It also said that the coverage appeared to “give out the exact location of the remaining terrorists with regard to the sensitive assets in their vicinity”.

The order accused NDTV Hindi of violating the provision of the Programme Code under the Cable TV Network Rules, 1995, which said (under Rule 6(1)(p): “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 NDTV Group was quick to come out with a statement that said that it was “shocking that NDTV has been singled out in this manner. Every channel and newspaper had similar coverage. In fact, NDTV’s coverage was particularly balanced. After the dark days of the Emergency when the press was fettered, it is extraordinary that NDTV is being proceeded against in this manner. NDTV is examining all options in this matter”.

Although the government put its order on hold after a meeting with top NDTV officials, and has ordered a reconsideration of the channel’s reply, the sword of Damocles is still hanging over the channel. In the meantime, the group has also approached the Supreme Court which has admitted the petition. The government’s action was first-of-its kind against a major TV news channel for allegedly endangering national security. It had earlier barred some other channels for violating norms like indecent advertising or disclosing identity of rape victims and children. The action against NDTV was seen by many professionals as a test case by the government because this particular group is not backed by any top political leader or business group. Incidentally, NDTV is considered one of the most sober and respected channels.

The entire premise that the specific coverage of the Pathankot attack at the beginning of this year had endangered security, and had helped terrorists during the operation, stands on thin ice. The government notice pertained to the channel’s coverage on 4 January even though the operation was virtually over on
January 2 with the killing of four terrorists who had entered the Pathankot Air Force base.

Although the govt put its order on hold after a meeting with NDTV officials, and has ordered a reconsideration of the channel’s reply, the sword of Damocles is still hanging over it

In fact, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had declared in a tweet that “all five terrorists” had been eliminated. The security forces engaged in the operation had earlier claimed that only four terrorists were involved. The tweet was hurriedly withdrawn with the agencies dealing with the encounter reporting gunfire from the area. The gunfire continued intermittently for the next two days before the operation was called off. Security agencies found only four bodies, four sets of arms and ammunition, four packets of half eaten food Items and other such items. It was claimed that the DNA samples of terrorists number 5 and 6 were picked from the spot and sent for forensic analysis. However, the forensic reports later said they have been unable to establish any evidence of anyone else than the four terrorists killed by security forces. An intelligence agency had subsequently pointed out that the intermittent firing heard after January 2 was perhaps the cross firing done by various security forces present inside the airbase in the belief that terrorists were firing the shots.

It was during this process, on January 4, that the NDTV reporter, besides other media persons present at the site, had reported that the location where the terrorists were likely to have holed up was close to ammunition dump and hangers for fighter aircraft. None of the reporters covering the attack was given
access inside the airbase or anywhere close to the encounter. Unlike the Mumbai attack which was witnessed by reporters, none of the reporters in Pathankot could see the actual operation and could have compromised security. Thus at best it was the figment of imagination by reporters and basic common sense in the least to guess that the alleged terrorists were near the ammunition depots and hangers. After all any airbase would have these two elements. This demolishes the entire premise of the government that the operation was compromised.

Secondly, and more importantly, the government can’t be the complainant as well as the judge and also the executioner all rolled into one. In this case the government agencies were the complainants and an Inter Ministry Committee, probably comprising of middle rung officers egged on by ministers, came to the conclusion that the channel had violated rules. It then proceeded to impose a ban on the channel for a day. Almost the entire media fraternity including the Editors Guild of India and Broadcasters’ Association besides top journalists, condemned the move and demanded the cancellation of the order. Even as the Group moved the Supreme Court, and agreed to hear the petition against the executive order, the Information and Broadcasting minister Venkaiah Naidu declared that the order had been put on hold after senior executives of the Group had met him for reconsideration. Subsequently there was also a dispute over who blinked first.

The moot question, however, is whether government itself should be sitting over judgement over issues pertaining to the media. It is certainly not a healthy trend in a democracy where media is considered an important pillar. If there is a threat of government muzzling it, it can’t be expected to undertake its responsibility in an unbiased manner. At the same time the media can’t be given unrestrained independence where the national security and interests are involved. After all there can always be sections of media which may be irresponsible and who may indulge in sensationalism. Similarly not all media persons are responsible and there is need to have provisions to deal with them under the ambit of law. However, government and its agencies are least equipped to do so and may not always have unbiased motives. These should better remain away from judging and punishing the ‘guilty’.

It is best to have professionals and independent adjudicators. Another way out can be to rechristen Press Council of India as Media Council of India and given teeth to penalise offending media outlet if it crosses the limits and compromises safety of security personnel engaged in an operation. Imposition of hefty fines can have the statutory effect rather than muzzling the voice, even if for short periods.