Interview | 'Completely Kept in Dark': MediaOne Editor on Channel Ban, HC Verdict and MHA

Pramod Raman, who heads the Malayalam channel banned by the Union government, speaks on the attack on journalism, the home ministry's powers, the necessity to invoke 'national security' and the judiciary.

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Kozhikode: The Kerala high court this week dismissed a petition of Malayalam channel MediaOne, challenging the Union government’s order banning the channel from airing.

This order came after the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) refused to give security clearance for the renewal of the channel’s licence. The channel and public were not informed of the exact allegations against it by the Union government.

However, a bench of Justice N. Nagaresh dismissed the channel’s appeal justifying the Union government’s secret “national security” concerns against the channel. This reasoning inviting criticism.   

A popular Malayalam news channel, run by a Muslim management, MediaOne is known for its reports that are often critical of the Modi government and its policies. The channel’s reporters have won several journalism accolades, including RedInk and Ramnath Goenka Awards.

On February 9, the channel filed an appeal petition before the Kerala high court. On the same day, The Wire spoke with the channel’s editor, senior journalist Pramod Raman, at the channel’s headquarters in Kozhikode.

How do you view the Union government’s move against MediaOne and the Kerala high court verdict that upheld the ban?

This is not a verdict exclusively against MediaOne. This government move is a crucial step that raises questions on how journalism practice in the country should look like. And the high court verdict justified the government’s action. 

The foundation of journalism practice is Article 19(1) (a) of the constitution. I think there should be debates on how much care should be taken while deciding on an issue of free speech, on how such decisions should be implemented, and whether such decisions can be simply and hastily made by a committee of officers. MediaOne is affected now, but tomorrow, it could be another news channel.  

The ‘national security’ [which both the Union government and high court invoked in the case] is an umbrella term.

We don’t have a well-defined idea on what may come under this term. It could be content [of a media report], or investment, or any administrative action. So, this ‘national security’ is a broad concept. 

A situation where the Union home ministry can easily take a decision on any matter that comes under the ‘national security’, just relying on the discretionary powers of an officers’ committee – and the court’s justification of such decisions – will never help journalism in the country.

There was already a similar move against MediaOne by the Union government, for the channel’s coverage of the Delhi riots in 2020. Do you think the channel is particularly being targeted by the Modi government? 

I view it differently. I can only see it as a move that targets the entire idea of journalism, rather than an attack on MediaOne.

The 48-hour ban in 2020 that you mentioned was soon lifted by the government. Besides, the reason [stated by the government] was very clear then. The government’s explanation clearly stated that the ban was because of the channel’s critical coverage on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Delhi police’s inaction. So, there was an explanation for the government’s action.

And it was soon withdrawn after it was proved that it was an absurd move.

At that time, similar action was taken against Asianet News too. 

You joined MediaOne as its editor not long ago. You have closely watched Kerala’s visual journalism evolve in the last several years. Have you noticed anything particular with the journalism practised by and at MediaOne? 

Media freedom is both the freedom for media organisations and the freedom for journalists to freely report and discuss issues. There should be freedom within news organisations. I don’t think this freedom is being denied at any Malayalam news channel. That our ban was discussed on almost every channel yesterday [February 8] proves this. So there is no issue in general.

However, only channels like MediaOne can take a different stand when it comes to certain subjects. 

Our policy document itself says that we are the “voice of the unheard”. We also have a policy to stand with those who are marginalised and who are denied justice. This perhaps makes a difference. May be at MediaOne, we have one of the best expressions of the core of journalism.

Let’s come to the HC judgment. Before going into the details of the verdict, I’d like to ask whether the ban was the only solution before the government and the court. Were there no less severe measures? This is a question legal expert Gautam Bhatia has also raised.

This is a very important point. Gautam Bhatia’s observations are extremely important.

Also read: Kerala HC Upholding Ban on MediaOne Is Censorship by Sealed Cover

Be it the 48-hour ban that we discussed earlier, or the one-day ban on NDTV in the past, those moves were comparatively small measures by the government. In those cases, the government followed procedures in a much better, democratic way. The government informed the channels of the reason for banning them, and gave them opportunity to be heard.

In NDTV’s case, officials from different ministries even held discussions with the channel’s management. Remember, ‘national security’ was the issue the government invoked to initiate action against NDTV too. But the government gave the channel an opportunity and invited its people for discussion.

But here, the government hastily and directly imposed a ban, without giving us an opportunity to correct ourselves, if there’s anything to correct.

There is also a question of where we should correct ourselves.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting rejected MediaOne’s application for license renewal after the MHA denied security clearance to the channel. The Union government did not say much about why security clearance was denied, but only said, as we could see in the verdict, that the MHA had “sufficient grounds” to deny clearance.

What would you say about this? Do you have any clue on why the clearance was not granted? 

This is a question many have asked me. And my answer is also the same: We don’t know anything more about this than you do. The most recent information regarding the ban came from the high court verdict. 

We were first sent a show cause notice. But this notice did not say what cause we needed to show. 

Was anything specifically mentioned in this notice?

No. It only said that the MHA has cancelled our security clearance, so we should explain why the channel should not be banned. What does such a notice mean? It is similar to asking a person for reasons why he should not be killed. We were completely kept in dark. 

A major argument of the Union government against the channel, which the high court also upheld, was that the channel’s actions affect ‘national security’.

The court also stated that even natural justice only comes second when it comes to ‘national security’ concerns. It stated “…[T]he principles of natural justice and interference by courts in the matter of national security, have very limited role”. It also said that “it is a settled position of law that in the matters pertaining to national security, the scope of judicial review is limited”.

So, once the government invokes ‘national security’, it doesn’t need to tell you why you are going to be banned, nor does it give you a chance to be heard. How do you see this?

‘Natural justice’ is something that has been accepted as a principle in our judicial system. It’s not a fundamental right. But we should reflect on whether a judicial practise, done in the absence of natural justice, is useful or not. We should think whether it is the right thing to do.

A verdict that the high court quoted in its verdict is a Supreme Court judgment authored by Justice Kurian Joseph in 2014. But at the same time, we also have the Supreme Court’s Pegasus case ruling. It was not considered. During the Pegasus hearing, the court came down heavily on the Centre when the ‘national security’ angle was invoked.

“The mere invocation of national security by the State does not render the Court a mute spectator,” the SC said on the issue. 

Our judiciary’s wisdom is an evolving one. So, the question is whether we should consider a 2014 verdict or the most recent Pegasus ruling. As time moves, when new situations emerge, there can be changes in judgments too. I think we should look at it.

Another concept discussed in the verdict has been ‘national interest’. The verdict suggests that neither the legislature nor judiciary have the final say on deciding what is in and not in ‘national interest’.

The judgment reads, “Whether something is in the interest of the State or not, should be left to the Executive”. Actually, this was the stand of the Centre during the hearing…

We have a good idea on the powers of the executive are. We also know the powers of the legislature and judiciary. 

There is wisdom on this subject that evolved through several judicial deliberations, besides what is said about it in the constitution.

Executive is not even the parliament. As a body of elected representatives of the people, the parliament stands much closer to the concept of democracy. But the executive is different. So, when the definition of ‘national interest’ solely depends on the discretionary powers of the executive, and when such definitions violate even the fundamental rights, it is a problem.

Besides, what the Supreme Court had said earlier, in the Ram Jethmalani case in 2011, is that the government has additional responsibility to protect fundamental rights. “The burden of protection of fundamental rights is primarily the duty of the State,” the court had said. So, it is the same government, which has the “burden of protection of fundamental rights,” which is now taking a position like this.

Now, let’s assume that the executive is compelled to take an action based on very secret information. But even then, simply because the said action here is to close down a media organisation, the public has every right to know what that secret information is. The public definitely have that right. The government must respect that right.

You said that our judiciary is evolving. Interestingly, the HC verdict quoted Atrisamhita, an ancient text of the Rigveda period, to make its point on ‘national security’ today. What is your comment on it?

Various legal experts have already commented on it. 

At a time when democracy exists, when there are widespread debates on civil and fundamental rights and on how such rights can be better protected, how can we quote a text that was written at a period when there was no democracy? This is a fundamental question. I think legal experts can comment more on this.

Moving on from the court verdict, the Centre’s ban on MediaOne is not an isolated incident. If we look at other parts of the country, including north India and especially in Kashmir, we can see widespread targeting of journalists and media organisations. How do you see this growing trend in the country as a senior journalist?

This is certainly a matter of great concern. Journalists are charged under Section 124A [of the Indian Penal Code] or sedition. This charge should not be used against any citizen.

We see that this colonial-era law is still being used here, even when those who originally introduced it in India have abolished the law in their own country. We live in a period when this law can be invoked against journalists, civil rights activists, or against anyone for that matter.

As we know, many are languishing in jails just because of this law. So, it is not desirable that this law is being repeatedly used against journalists too. It could endanger the very existence of the country, as well as of its democratic setup.

Also read: Sedition and the Supreme Court: Justice Delayed, but Not Justice Denied

In the age of digital media, and when we regularly see fresh variants of social media platforms grow popular, how do you see the very concept of ‘media licenses’, and their relevance today?

This is an important question. We use terms like ‘licensing Raj’ because this basically remains a setup where the executive can take unilateral decisions. There are extensive discussions on censorship that exist in cinema, different art forms and in the cultural field. Similarly, we should also ask what good licensing practices do in the media field, especially at a time when geographical boundaries disappear. 

Your channel is a popular one in Kerala. Since the Union government banned it last month, support has been pouring in from the public, from ordinary people to parliamentarians and the Kerala chief minister himself…

We are receiving huge support. Every voice, which we expect will be raised from within Kerala society during a situation like this, is being raised. We are getting support from what we call the Left, secular, democratic forces and parties, from the general public, and from ordinary men and women. 

There could be many who disagree with MediaOne. But even they too stand with us to protect our right to raise our voice, to free expression. This solidarity is a big thing. 

Finally, what is in store for the future? 

We have already filed an appeal with the division bench of Kerala high court. Senior advocate Dushyant Dave will appear for us.

Muhammed Sabith is a journalist and researcher. He can be reached at [email protected]