Modi stirs the hornet’s nest with NDTV media gag

Modi government has stirred a hornet’s nest in imposing a one-day ban on NDTV India on clearly specious grounds that need to be looked into

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The Modi government has stirred a hornet’s nest in imposing a one-day ban on NDTV India on clearly specious grounds.

There is nothing in the report in question that justifies the application of Rule (6)(p) of the Programme Code of Cable TV Network Rules, 1994 which bans the “live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces”.

Indeed, an Indian Express report says that the specific information that the NDTV report allegedly revealed was itself flawed and even more sensitive information had been given out by other channels.

The government has carefully chosen to make an example out of a channel which is renowned for its sharp reports and goes out of its way to avoid sensational coverage.

It would seem that in today’s environment where the world is divided into “nationalists” and “anti-nationals,” there is no space for reporting that questions the official narrative as NDTV India routinely does.

No country provides for the absolute freedom of speech or complete freedom to its media. The American Constitution’s 1st Amendment has exceptions relating to obscenity, defamation, incitement and so on.

In India’s case, the freedom is further restricted on issues relating to the integrity of the country and even friendly relations with foreign states.

But all democratic countries treasure a free media for the role it plays in stabilising the governmental system - informing people about government actions or warning of their errors and omissions.

In independent India, the free press has been seen as the custodian of its right of free speech.

That is why the Indira Gandhi government was roundly attacked for imposing censorship during the Emergency.

An attempt by the Rajiv Gandhi government to restrict free speech via a new anti-defamation law came a cropper in 1988.

However, in the case of the electronic media, which was, in any case, the exclusive preserve of the government till the 1990s, the bureaucracy found an alternative route to censorship via the Cable TV Network Rules, just as they have done in the case of the Internet.

The background of the NDTV India ban lies in the Mumbai terror strike of November 2008.

It is well known that the terrorist handlers were following Indian media coverage and using it to direct the terrorists holed up in various locales in Mumbai.

But the primary reason for this was the abject failure of the Maharashtra government and the Mumbai Police to establish an effective cordon around the area of the operation.

Common good

Such a responsibility lies with every state and local administration where a terrorist incident may occur.

It is only in the event that a media wantonly breaks the rules that action should be initiated against them.

But what should media do when the authorities do not do their job and then claim that the media broke the rules?

The idea of the freedom of the media evolved with democracy.

As societies became more complex, the need for accurate and timely information was felt.

This was not only for business activities, but governance. Democracy rose with the partisan political parties competing in periodic elections to govern society.

To assist people in making informed choices, there arose a need for a media that could report without fear or favour.

All of society, government and opposition have seen it as a common good. Governments need a free media to alert them to missteps and emerging problems, their challengers need it so that to make their case against an incumbent government.

Official cocoon

In 1977 Mrs Indira Gandhi lost every Lok Sabha seat in an arc from Gujarat to Orissa.

She had no clue that things were so bad for the Congress. The reason was that there was no free media to report what was really happening around her.

We are nowhere near that situation today. But the Modi government’s disdain for people who have different views on issues ranging from terrorism, foreign policy o some dietary preferences does not bode well.

Modi himself largely distances himself from the media, preferring to use the one-way communication of Twitter.

Eventually, he may end up paying the price.

Power isolates, and absolute power isolates absolutely. One of the most powerful prime ministers of the country, he lives in an official cocoon, dependent on others for information.

Since our babus and ministers are not the most courageous people, they tend to keep negative information away from the boss or massage it to meaninglessness.

A free media, with all its biases and faults remains the best means of keeping a hand on the pulse of the country, something every public man ought to cherish.

This commentary originally appeared in Mail Today.

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Manoj Joshi