New Delhi: As protests in the Northeast turn violent over the government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which was passed in parliament on Wednesday, the government is trying to control TV channels from broadcasting any dissenting news about the Bill.
On Wednesday, a notice from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was sent to all private satellite TV channels.
The notice asks TV channels to be cautious about broadcasting any content which “promotes anti-national attitudes” or which affects the “integrity of the nation”. The notice failed to explain what constituted as “anti-national attitudes”.
It also said that channels should be careful not to broadcast anything that could “encourage or incite violence or anything against maintenance of law and order”.
The notice could serve to muzzle local news channels in Assam, that have been broadcasting information about protests in the state opposing the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Previously, advisories had used similar language in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack and, most recently, before the Supreme Court verdict on the Ayodhya dispute.
Another notice, sent to nodal officers at Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, BSNL and Reliance Jio, from the political department of the government of Assam yesterday, shut the internet down in parts of the state.
The justification used was similar, which is that footage of the violent protests was being broadcast and that the state government did not want people to see this footage.
The state government’s notice said that electronic media channels had been showing that “protestors are involved in vandalism which is likely to spread and create serious law and order situation in the state.” It also said that social media platforms were “likely to be used for spreading rumours and also for transmission of information….. that have the potential to inflame passions and thus exacerbate the law and order situation.”
In 2015, the Union ministry of information and broadcasting came down heavily on Sathiyam TV channel for speaking about a “dreadful person” which the ministry said was a reference to a political leader. They said that this terminology could “potentially give rise to a communally sensitive situation and incite the public to violent tendencies.” The channel had to depose before a committee of bureaucrats and was then given a warning.
The notice from the Union ministry of information and broadcasting, sent to all channels, reminds them of the ‘Programme and Advertising Codes’ in the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 and asks them not to broadcast anything which violates these codes.
The Code is a vaguely worded document and has a list of restrictions on content. For example it vaguely bans visuals or words which “promote communal attitudes.” It also bans anything which “promotes anti-national attitudes.”
Failure to follow it, can result in the channel’s equipment being seized and even imprisonment for those concerned. Analysts like Bhairav Acharya have written in
Writing for The Wire, lawyer Bhairav Acharya noted that the vagueness of the code implies that it could be misused by governments to simply control the flow of information.