Thursday, November 3, 2016

Editors Guild On Action Against NDTV - Harsh Censorship Like In Emergency / Labelling journalistic endeavour as 'anti-national' is worrying


The Editors Guild of India strongly condemns the unprecedented decision of the inter-ministerial committee of the Union Ministry of Information Broadcasting to take NDTV India off the air for a day and demands that the order be immediately rescinded.

The ostensible reason for the order as reported is that the channel's coverage of the Pathankot terror attack on January 2, 2016 that the government claims gave out sensitive information to the handlers of terrorists. NDTV in its response to a show cause by the government has maintained that its coverage was sober and did not carry any information that had not been covered by the rest of the media, and was in the public domain.

The decision to take the channel off the air for a day 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. This first-of-its-kind order to impose a blackout has seen the Central government entrust itself with the power to intervene in the functioning of the media and take arbitrary punitive action as and when it does not agree with the coverage. There are various legal remedies available to both a citizen and a state in the Court of Law to have action taken for any irresponsible media coverage. Imposing a ban without resorting to judicial intervention or oversight violates the fundamental principles of freedom and justice. The Editors Guild of India calls for an immediate withdrawal of the ban order.

Raj Chengappa; President
Prakash Dube; General Secretary
Seema Mustafa; Treasurer

On two occasions in the past, NDTV shut itself up. For an hour. The first was when a ban was imposed on the telecast of the documentary India's Daughter on the Delhi gangrape case. This was in March 2015 and NDTV went with a screen with just a flickering candle, in the slot it was supposed to air it. It was a powerful and aesthetic way to register its protest at the decision.

The second was in February this year during the JNU controversy when NDTV India (the group's channel in Hindi) went blank for some 40-odd minutes. TV metamorphosed into radio with its 9 pm anchor Ravish Kumar launching into an acerbic self-deprecating commentary, taunting the 'mob of journalism' and all those who had brought the country to this pass. It was considered yet another moment of eloquent journalism to get its point across.

NDTV India will once again go blank from 1 pm on 9 November, but this time for 24 hours. This time, it is not the channel's bosses who have decided to embrace black. An inter-ministerial committee of the Information and Broadcasting ministry has made the recommendation that NDTV India suffer this penalty for allegedly revealing "strategically sensitive" details during the coverage of the Pathankot terrorist attack in January 2016.

For NDTV, that has several firsts to its credit, this will be a dubious first. This is the first order against a broadcaster over its coverage of a terror attack since a rule was introduced in June 2015. A reading of the ruling make the charges against NDTV India appear grave. It charges the Hindi channel with revealing "information on the ammunition stockpiled in the airbase, MIGs, fighter planes, rocket launchers, mortars, helicopters, fuel tanks" and this it felt, was likely to be used by the terrorists or their handlers to cause massive harm to national security, lives of civilians and defence personnel. It concluded that the content appeared to be violative of the programming norms.

The channel did not agree with the content of the show cause notice that was issued. It replied that it was a case of "subjective interpretation" and that most of the information they had put out was already in the public domain in print, electronic and social media. In a statement, it said "it is shocking that NDTV has been singled out in this manner".

But the committee, brushing aside the denial of any norm, felt that the channel "appeared to give out the exact location of the remaining terrorists with regard to the sensitive assets in their vicinity".
NDTV India had deployed one of its senior reporters, who has 20 years of experience in covering defence and a track record for sober reportage, to Pathankot. Even otherwise, when compared to its shrill chest-thumping rival channels, NDTV India is known for a more restrained approach. Which is perhaps why it is the laggard in the TRP game, one that does not even figure in the top 10.

But what the order attempts to do is to label NDTV as 'irresponsible'. What the motivated army of cacophony-makers on social media will do is to turn that into a label of 'anti-national'. Accuse it of sleeping with the enemy. It is the kind of ugly certification high on circulation these days where just about every Twitter handle, perched on every gali ka nukkad smartphone, dishes out "tum gaddaar ho" spiel. The highly objectionable tag of 'presstitute' that is repeatedly thrown at journalists to insult. Recently, the instance of NDTV's Barkha Dutt being "praised" by terror mastermind Hafiz Saeed was milked by trolls and even rival channel anchors to paste convenient labels.

But this time the missive comes from the government of India and therefore, it is time to sit up and take note. The order ironically comes just 24 hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a reference to the Emergency during his speech at the Ramnath Goenka Awards. He stressed on the need to reflect on the breakdown of democracy during the Emergency in 1975 so that no one dares to repeat it.

The Emergency was marked by government excesses on free press. While the jury is out on whether NDTV Indiacrossed the ethical LoC, a strong message has been sent out. Fall in line or else you will be hit in a way that hurts most. If a credible and well-respected brand like NDTV can be 'punished', worse fate awaits you, in case you cross our interpretation of the lakshman rekha.

In fact, NDTV's statement also makes a reference to the Emergency when it says, "After the dark days of the Emergency when the press was fettered, it is extraordinary that NDTV is being proceeded against in this manner."

Even while the PM was speaking, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi were being detained by Delhi police, for attempting to meet the family of an army veteran who had committed suicide. Many have likened these two incidents to trial runs of an emergency, but let us not digress.

I am told during the news broadcast, the reporter was asked about what all could be inside the Pathankot air base. I can tell you any journalist, even with years of experience, can only give a basic idea of what it would have. Does the ministry want us to believe that the terrorists did not do their basic homework before choosing such a critical target? Instead, they were tuned into NDTV India to know from its reporter what is inside an airbase and where is what? Does it mean that Pakistan undertook this high-risk operation banking entirely on an Indian channel to tell where the MIGs are parked? It is preposterous that this kind of argument is even finding takers.

I am not arguing for unfettered freedom of speech. During an Emergency, during a time of low-intensity conflict and threat to internal security, that would be a silly cloak to wear and seek immunity. When it is about India, the country's interest obviously is paramount. Period. After the mistakes of 26/11, most TV channels are more than careful in live terror operation situations. And the National Broadcasters Authority should be empowered to bring errant media houses to book, if they indulge in anything that compromises India's security interests.

But it is the labelling of a journalistic endeavour as anti-national that worries me. And it should worry you, the viewer as well, even if you are among those NDTV-baiters who would gloat about the decision to black out and ask why not ban the sister English channel as well. Make no mistake, a vulnerable media and a scared journalist are not in India's interests. Today, the powers-that-be have come for the messenger, tomorrow they will come for the recipient. You.

Wonder also why a network that is not number one in either Hindi or in English should worry its critics so much. Particularly when NDTV seemed to have lost the perception battle last month after the surgical strikes when it decided that it will not air any voice that questions the armed forces. An interview with former Home minister P Chidambaram was axed while the presser by BJP chief Amit Shah was aired. Doubts were raised if NDTV too had finally succumbed to 'pressure'.

It is also deeply ironical that the same government allowed a visit by a Pakistan delegation, that was stuffed with ISI men, to inspect the Pathankot air base. Isn't allowing the enemy's best sleuths, who allegedly masterminded the terror attack right into your secure air base, "anti-national"? And if it was NDTV India that allegedly compromised the country's interests in Pathankot, wonder which media house will be blamed for Uri in September, in which 19 soldiers were martyred?

The government of India did not even know that terrorists were still holed up in Pathankot when our Home Minister tweeted the operation was over and congratulated everyone. The encounter went on for 66 hours after his tweet. Was he penalised for this blunder? Were aspersions cast on Rajnath Singh's ability or worse, patriotism? Funny that a government's netas and babus accused of blundering on Pathankot, are finding a scapegoat in a hardly-watched news channel, if those TRPs are anything to go by.

But this time the missive comes from the government of India and therefore, it is time to sit up and take note. To my mind, this decision coupled with Union minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju's "ask no questions" rhetoric is an attempt to dictate the narrative. At this rate, TV channels may well announce before every bulletin: This news broadcast is brought to you by the sarkaar.

What will this order do to the journalistic fraternity? Fear. Silence. Just exist.

It isn't easy to take on the might of a government. Any government, be it at the Centre or at the state. I can bet the next time a crisis of this kind emerges, any newsroom will be more circumspect so that it does not meet NDTV India's fate. Being circumspect in not putting out sensitive details is necessary, but it will gradually translate into no criticism of the establishment. Media will lose its critical watchdog role. The journalist will fear losing his or her job if he puts out facts that are not palatable to the powers-that-be. After all, in today's polarised environment, it does not take much to label anyone as anti-national and hang him. Or black out, as in this case.

Criticism from the government is a badge of honour for a journalist, said Indian Express Editor Rajkamal Jha at the Ramnath Goenka Awards. Some at NDTV feel the one-day blackout is like an attestation of the brand. But then only the court can decide on a penalty of this kind, not a group of ministers or bureaucrats, who are expected the toe the line dictated by their political masters.

India today is a country divided into bhakts and atheists. The attempt over the last 29 months has been to increase the number of god-fearing Indians, especially among the media. To borrow LK Advani's line, when asked to bend, many are opting to prostrate, not just crawl.

Rajkamal Jha made another pertinent point at the event. He said, "In this selfie journalism, if you don't have the facts, it doesn't matter. You just put a flag in the frame and you hide behind it."
NDTV India, it would seem, forgot to put the flag.