NDTV ban: both selective and illegal

BY RAJESH SINHA| IN Media Freedom | 05/11/2016
The channel stands accused of revealing “sensitive strategic information” when an operation was in progress. But does the charge stick and if so does it apply only to NDTV?
RAJESH SINHA examines the evidence and concludes that it does not

IndiaTV also carried coverage of the operation, as did others. 

 

It is not just the government’s motive behind imposing a one-day ban on NDTV that is in question; it is its very legality and the government may have to answer for more than just its intentions in singling out NDTV for action.

Justice (Retd) Markandey Katju points out that the one day ban on NDTV is “illegal”. He says Rule 6(1)(p) of the Programme Code of the Cable TV Network Rules, 1994, under which the ban was imposed, states:

“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.”

Thus, the ban is on showing “live coverage” of anti-terrorist operations by the security forces, showing scenes of security forces searching or pursuing terrorists, or fighting them. Mere reporting about anti-terrorist operations is not live coverage. NDTV had only reported about anti-terrorist operations. There was no live coverage and the ban is therefore clearly illegal, said Katju in a Facebook post.

While Information and Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah Naidu accused critics of politicising an action taken in the interests of “national security”, the reason for the action seem to lie elsewhere: NDTV has been an inconvenience and has been in the cross-hairs of the current establishment in government for quite some time. It was a favourite target of BJP-RSS troll army. Unlike most other TV news channels, it remained sober and balanced while raising questions about the official narrative. It also did not get into the everyday rant invoking patriotism, national security and the army to gloss over other issues. Then, it fell victim to precisely this theme.

 

"Mere reporting about anti-terrorist operations is not live coverage."

 

The charge on which action against NDTV has been taken is, revealing “strategically-sensitive” details while covering the Pathankot terrorist attack. Before one takes up the authenticity – or otherwise – of the charge, please make a note of the theme. It is once again, harping on the theme of the “army”, “soldiers dying to defend our borders while ungrateful/antinational elements make merry”, “national security”. Only the words used are different.

The one-day ban follows some earlier pressure tactics which are suspected to have forced the channel to refrain from airing former Home Minister P Chidambaram’s interview- after running day-long promos. A compliant NDTV also ran statements on its screen about keeping armed forces away from politics – seen as bowing to the government agenda of not questioning anything sought to be glossed over in the name of security forces.

Earlier, the same political establishment in Jammu and Kashmir, where BJP is in alliance with PDP, banned publication of Kashmir Reader as well on charges of inciting violence – when, as several media persons and observers say, it was reporting merely what other news organisations were doing. Even there, the action was suspected to have been born out of an old grudge.

Governments dislike questioning, this one more than any other we have seen in Delhi in decades. While a minister of state is fond of objecting to the “fashion” of questioning government and official authority, the fact is it has become fashionable for this government to suppress any criticism, any dissent with something like “how dare you say this when soldiers are dying at the border to defend you”. Well, they are fighting precisely to preserve and protect the country which has a democracy that allows people to question.

 

 

Yes, nothing should be done to hamper them and jeopardise the critical task they performing and the accusation was that NDTV India had, in a broadcast on the afternoon of January 4, revealed information about the location of militants while they were still attacking the Pathankot Air Force base in Punjab, an incident that eventually saw seven military personnel and one civilian killed. The notice accused NDTV India of announcing on air how close the militants were to sensitive installations such as an ammunition depot, airstrip and an army base.

It quoted the NDTV reporter as saying: “Two terrorists are still alive and they are next to an ammunitions depot. And the jawans who are under fire, they are concerned that if the militants make it to the ammunitions depot, then it will be even harder to neutralise them.”

The broadcast also allegedly revealed information about the airbase: that it contained MIG fighter jets, rocket launchers, mortars, helicopters and fuel tanks, and had schools and residential areas. The notice argued that this information could be “used by the terrorists themselves or their handlers”.

The charge against NDTV, that the channel was guilty of revealing sensitive information that might have helped terrorists, is extremely hollow. If NDTV did it, every channel did it, including India TV, headed by this government’s favourite Rajat Sharma, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan last year. Part of the IndiaTV coverage can be viewed on YouTube, here and here. Other news channels, too, did it. Here is a sample.

NDTV in its reply to the government had demolished the accusations, citing instances and examples to point out that the so-called sensitive information that the channel was being accused of broadcasting was already out in the public domain. Details of the strategic assets at the airbase had appeared in reports carried by newspapers before the broadcast on NDTV.

 

"The channel quoted extensively from the video of an army briefing to make the case that the location of the terrorists was made public by the army."

 

In a detailed report, Scroll.in listed several examples cited in NDTV’s reply:

-  On January 3, The Indian Express carried an IANS report that revealed the presence of “MIG-21 fighter bison jets, MI-35 attack helicopters, missiles and other critical assets” at the airbase. The next morning, the paper's print edition reported similar details.

-   A report published in The Times of India on January 3 mentioned surface-to-air missiles and surveillance radars.

-   On January 4, citing an army brigadier, The Hindustan Times reported that two terrorists were “holed up in a double-storeyed building which is a living accommodation of air force personnel”.

The channel quoted extensively from the video of an army briefing to make the case that the location of the terrorists was made public by the army.

The NDTV reply points out that other news channels had reported similar details.

-    On January 4, around the same time as the NDTV telecast, a reporter on News 24 revealed that the army was going to use JCB machines to attack the building where the terrorists were holed up.

-   ABP News reported on January 2 that two terrorists were hiding and were being prevented from getting close to the fighter planes.

-   A reporter on Aaj Tak said the terrorists had not managed to access the technical and residential areas in the airbase.

Further. a report by Praveen Swamy in The Indian Express pointed out “…several channels carried news not sourced from the official spokesperson. News24’s show Sabsey Bada Sawaal’s reporter, for example, said in a January 4 broadcast that there were 22 combat aircraft and helicopters parked on the technical area, just short of the runway. Two days earlier, Aaj Tak’s morning news broadcast claimed to provide precise details on the location of the terrorists – “100 metres inside base” – and reported the presence of combat jets in the nearby technical area.

A reporter for ABP News on January 2, again reported that the two terrorists had been cornered in a residential building short of the air force’s technical area, unable to reach the area “where the fighters are”: information near-identical to that NDTV India was to provide two days later.

Swamy’s report added: High-resolution images of the Pathankot Air Force base, showing the precise locations where aircraft were parked, were available prior to the attack on Google Maps, while multiple articles referring to aircraft types flown from there were available on the internet making it highly unlikely the terrorists would have had to rely on news broadcasts for this kind of information.

However, in the eyes of the government, only the coverage by NDTV India was “leaking sensitive strategic information”. The rest had established their credentials in its eyes as nationalist channels.

Editors’ Guild, Press Club of India, Indian Women's Press Corps and other journalist groups have condemned Modi govt for censorship on NDTV.Some news organisations and social media websites have decided to shut down for a day in solidarity with NDTV.

But why should media cede its territory of news space even for a day? If the order is unfair and, as Justice Katju points out, illegal, NDTV should defy the order and continue to air its programmes. Other channels and newspapers should run a band at the top of the page protesting the ban and/or proclaiming solidarity with NDTV.

 

 

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