Ever since the chaotic and unseemly media spectacle which unfolded in downtown Mumbai during the 26/11 attacks, government managers, the courts – and journalists – have been especially mindful of the need for restraint and sensitivity in news coverage of ongoing security operations against terrorists. After the Mumbai attack ended, it emerged that some of the terrorists had planned their next moves on the basis of instructions received by telephone from handlers in Pakistan who learned about impending commando deployments from the live coverage several Indian TV channels were providing. Last year, the Modi government amended the Cable TV Network Rules, 1994, to add a new clause, 6(1) p, prohibiting TV channels from carrying content “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.”
This amendment was of a sweeping nature – especially the demand that media coverage “be restricted to periodic briefing” by a designated officer – but most news organisations ignored the potential threat it represented to media freedom because the assumption was that such a clause had been drafted in good faith and would be implemented in good faith as well.
How misplaced that assumption was became clear on Thursday when a special committee set up by the ministry of information and broadcasting imposed a one-day ban on NDTV India – the Hindi news channel of the NDTV television group. The ministry alleges that NDTV India endangered the lives of civilians and security forces personnel by broadcasting sensitive details about the Pathankot airbase even as it was still under attack by terrorists on January 4, 2016.
There are three issues at stake here. First, the information that the ministry accuses NDTV India of divulging – such as the presence of a school and civilians on the airbase, the fact that strategic assets like fighter planes were located at the base, and that there was an arms and ammunition and fuel dump in the vicinity – can hardly be considered a secret or an operational detail. Indeed, one assumes this is precisely why terrorist organisations made the airbase a target. Much of this information had in any case been widely reported on television and in newspapers before the NDTV India reporter spoke about these issues in the course of an update on January 4. The committee’s argument that newspaper reports are less useful to terrorists because TV broadcasts are instantaneous tells us a lot about ministry’s ignorance of media dynamics in the internet age.
The irony is that the official briefing which preceded the impugned NDTV India report – and which was telecast live – also mentioned the presence of a school and of civilians in the airbase. However, the officials had stressed the fact that the threat from the terrorists had already been physically contained and that there was no danger to any civilians or military assets. How then can the I&B ministry claim NDTV India placed lives at risk?
Apart from the subjectivity involved, the ministry’s ban order also reeks of arbitrariness. On the face it, every single news channel that week violated Section 6(1)p by providing live coverage of the counter-terrorist operation as it unfolded but also by not confining themselves to official briefings. So why has the government chosen to throw the book at NDTV India? Could it be because it is the one channel in Hindi that has given ample space in its programmes for subjects and viewpoints that don’t show the BJP and the government in the best light (notwithstanding the ill-advised self-censorship that the group’s English channel indulged in recently)?
Third, the power to ban a media organisation, even if for a day, is too dangerous a weapon to place in the hands of politicians and their hand-picked bureaucrats. Today, Pathankot has been made an issue, tomorrow the media could be targeted for, say, its coverage of the Bhopal prison escape and apparent custodial killing of eight alleged SIMI members. Media freedom stems from the public’s right to life, liberty, free speech and information. Restrictions on this freedom cannot be left to the executive. NDTV must fight this matter out in court and it is the sacred duty of the entire Indian media to support the channel in this.