The 9 November NDTV Ban:
On 29 January 2016, NDTV India was issued a notice for violation of the Cable TV Network (Regulation) Act. The Information & Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry raised issues regarding NDTV’s coverage of the 2 January 2016 Pathankot terror attack. The Ministry accused the news channel of revealing sensitive information during the attack, including details of ammunition stockpiles, the location of residential areas, details about MIGs and fuel tanks, and the location of the attackers. NDTV responded to the Government’s notice by saying their reporting had been “balanced and responsible”. An Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) heard NDTV’s arguments on 25 July. Today, NDTV Ltd. – the parent company which operates NDTV India – has approached the Supreme Court against the ban. They have filed a writ petition questioning the constitutional validity of government action.
On 2 November, an order that NDTV India would be banned from transmission for a day on 9 November was made public. The order declared that the Government would “prohibit the transmission or re-transmission of NDTV India channel for one day on any platform throughout India with effect from 00:01 hrs on 9th November 2016 till 00:01 hrs of 10th November 2016”.
The Cable TV Network (Regulation) Act was passed in 1994 has been amended many times since. The provision under which the Government has decided to ban NDTV on 9 November 2016 is Rule 6(1)(p). This provision was introduced through a 2015 amendment, and is a component of the “Programme Code” of the Act.
Rule 6(1)(p) reads thus: “(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 explanation given under the amendment is: “For the purposes of this clause, it is clarified that “anti-terrorist operation” means such operation undertaken to bring terrorists to justice, which includes all engagements involving justifiable use of force between security forces and terrorists.”
While successive Governments over the years have invoked the above Act to stop transmission of TV channels, this is the first time that a news channel has been issued a notice, and the first time that Rule 6(1)(p) – the national security clause – has been invoked. In the past decade, TV channels have been banned 28 times, but for reasons pertaining to nudity and adult content.
Supporters of the ban have cited arguments of threat to national security while opponents of the ban have criticized the attack on freedom of the press and misuse of Government machinery.
The Government’s Argument:
The I&B Minister Venkaiah Naidu said, “This decision was only a culmination of the larger security concerns being expressed since 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. NDTV India has been found to have violated this provision and was found to be unrepentant about what they have done. This channel was also found to have resorted to similar violations earlier.”
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar told reporters, “I will convey your apprehensions and worries to the I&B Minister. But I feel that apart from violating guidelines pertaining to such coverage, this issue has something to do with security. Therefore, I will also tell them that the reasons behind it should be conveyed to the media.”
A day after the ban was issued, NDTV released a statement saying, “The order of the MIB (Ministry of I&B) has been received. It is 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.”
Support for NDTV
Many media outlets and Opposition politicians reiterated NDTV’s arguments that its broadcast of the Pathankot attack was not dissimilar to that of other media channels. Non-BJP leaders led by the Chief Ministers of West Bengal and Delhi criticised the “unprecedented” move and called for an immediate withdrawal of the ban.
There was also the argument of freedom of the press. The Editor’s Guild of India released a statement saying the Guild “strongly condemns the unprecedented decision of the inter-ministerial committee of the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to take NDTV India off the air for a day and demands that the order be immediately rescinded. The decision to take the channel off the air is a direct violation of the freedom of the media and, therefore, the citizens of India, and amounts to harsh censorship imposed by the government reminiscent of the Emergency.”
Has NDTV been singled out?
The argument by all the supporters of the channel has been that NDTV did not give out any information that wasn’t already available for the terrorists to obtain. For instance, a detailed image of the base was available on Google Maps before the coverage, which has now been removed. The information that NDTV gave out regarding location of the terrorists, presence of arsenal, and the presence of civilians was already shared by multiple other media houses, including in the press briefing by the defense spokespersons which was aired live on all channels.
Commanding Officer JS Dhooman said, “The Operation is still on, and as I have told you, this is quite a big airbase and other than strategic assets, there are families here, there’s a school here. It is like a mini-city”
Brigadier Anupinder Singh said, ““The terrorists were holed up in a double storied building, which was the living accommodation of the air force personnel and currently the operations are in progress to clear this building from terrorists.”
A detailed report of all the other media houses who reported the details and shared similar information before NDTV did, is on Amit Sen’s blog.
Legal Aspects of the Issue:
Some commentators have questioned the use of Rule 6(1)(p) (text provided above) to ban the channel. Former Supreme Court Judge Markandey Katju called the ban “illegal”. He wrote on Facebook: “The ban is on showing ‘live coverage’ of anti terrorist operations by the 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.”
This controversy has sharply divided the nation, with Government supporters commending the ban and others criticizing it as authoritarian and reckless. The ban is slated to take place on 9 November. Whether the Government will actually go ahead with it, only time will tell. Meanwhile, the debate continues.
The Logical Indian Stand
The Logical Indian feels that the ban on the news channel is in bad faith. We do not condone sharing sensitive information by any news media, especially information pertaining to national security. But, if such cases are found, all the ‘guilty’ parties should be punished equally, but a ban is not the answer. If the grounds of banning NDTV are that they flouted Rule 6(1)(p), this should be applicable to all news media across the board who had similar coverage. Singling out one channel is discriminatory.
Also, if NDTV India really leaked sensitive or secretive information, which was not available in public domain, then an important question to ask is, what was their source of information? The truth is if done enough research on the internet, the information (which was telecast on 2 January) is readily available for use. But if information (which is not available on public domain) is leaked as claimed by the government, then a more pressing issue is that a journalist was able to access secret information.
Letting this ban go into effect sets a precedent for the present and future Governments to single out any individual or media house for their opinions, which is essentially a violation of our right to the Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19 of the Indian constitution. Suppressing opposing and varying opinions and voices in a democracy are only a step away from a totalitarian state. This is why we stand with NDTV.
One more question is should the Govt. have the right to ban a news channel in a democracy? The Ministers, Parties and the Govt., all have their own favourite and preferred media houses, and also have a stand against those who don’t toe their line. The best way possible in such a scenario is that the Govt. should reach out to the Judiciary, which is non-partisan, to take action against media. So that the Politicians and the parties don’t misuse their power to suppress dissenting voices in future.
Ravish Kumar of NDTV India did a Prime Time show on the ban, you can watch it here: