Tuesday, November 8, 2016

M K Venu - The Creeping Erosion of Free Expression

Make no mistake, the government’s decision to put on hold the one-day ban on NDTV India is just a tactical withdrawal on the part of the Modi-led government. The DNA of this dispensation is not changing anytime soon. Such attacks on the media will persist in the name of preserving 
“nationalism” and “national security”. The last time media organisations buried their differences and came out in protest was when BJP goons in lawyers’ clothing tried to thrash journalists who had gathered to cover the bail application proceedings of Kanhaiya Kumar earlier this year. The right to freedom of expression was an issue there too. At that time, the media had got a taste of the cynical manner in which the Centre used the Delhi Police, which let the party stormtroopers do their job despite the Supreme Court’s directive to maintain order outside the courts.
This time around, the media rallied behind NDTV after the ban order and wholeheartedly condemned the wanton attack on press freedom guaranteed under the constitution. The government saw the growing protests across India – not just in Lutyens Delhi, as some bhakts would like to believe – and decided to soften a bit for now. The Editors’ Guild of India, Indian Women’s Press Corp, Press Club of India and the Federation of Press Clubs across 14 states all came out strongly in protest against the ban.

Meanwhile, NDTV has filed a petition in the Supreme Court and sought to get the ban order declared unconstitutional as it violates the right to free expression under Article 19(1) (a) of the constitution. The power to ban media channels under rule 6(1)(p) of the Programme Code (prescribed under the Cable Television Network Rules 1994), which deals with the coverage of terror attacks, needs to be examined in detail by the Supreme Court. How could the mere mention of the existence of a fuel depot, school and private quarters of soldiers inside the Pathankot base – all information in public domain – be construed as compromising national security? Is there an elaborate security protocol established by the government and conveyed formally to media organisations for the coverage of incidents such as the Pathankot attack? These are questions the Supreme Court will surely examine. 

The court will also examine the bigger question of whether the scope of “reasonable restrictions” to freedom of speech is being illegally expanded by the NDA government in the name of “national security”. These critical questions are by no means resolved... read more: