I&B Ministry’s gag order on TV channels belittled its image as protector of freedom of expression

On Friday, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had banned Asianet News and Media One News for the next forty-eight hours for their allegedly ‘biased’ coverage of the recent Delhi riots

I&B Ministry’s gag order on TV channels belittled its image as protector of freedom of expression

Mrinal Pande

The riots, that erupted in Delhi even as the US President and his wife were being lavishly entertained in a packed stadium in faraway Gujarat, ironically seem to follow a trajectory set in Gujarat in 2002. At this point, one cannot write a history of the events that began to unfurl with the rioting and how both in 2002 and 2020, the media was blamed for reporting on police inaction while the city burnt and mobs went on a rampage. The wide coverage that brave media men and women gave the riots — thereby highlighting the guilty ones, alerting the authorities and saving many lives — was interpreted by many in the Establishment as having fanned the fires instead.

On Friday, March 6, India saw the issuance of two unprecedented orders from the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, banning Asianet News (the most watched TV channel in Kerala) and Media One News in which the stakeholders are Muslims. The gag order was for the next 48 hours with immediate effect. The charges? While reporting on recent Delhi riots, Media One channel was deemed guilty of “questioning the RSS and alleging police inaction” and both channels were being punished for “having highlighted the attack on places of worship and siding (sic) towards a certain community”.

In the case of Media One, the ministry also alleged that the channel had deliberately focussed on vandalism by parties supporting the new Citizenship Amendment Law. It had sent the channel a show-cause notice but found its answer ‘unsatisfactory’.

What happened in Gujarat and what is happening in Delhi will happen yet again because it seems mistrust has not turned into trust and the media, when it shows the violence in the streets, is once again being pushed back by authorities, instead of being heard and allowed to answer the charges they are quick to level. It is therefore necessary for all senior media men and women and bodies like the Editors’ Guild and Women’s Press Corps to explore not only what they reported but why such an unprecedented step was taken by the ministry that was subsequently withdrawn rather hurriedly.

Lutyens’ Delhi, where the mighty live and entertain guests of honour and heads of state, remains glamorous still. It is an area of abundance and well-dressed men, women and children where a few men killed a few miles away will not disrupt formal dinners nor the mandatory visits to Gandhiji’s Samadhi at Rajghat. Thanks to information technology, however, the incidents taking place just a few miles away from Raisina Hill turn our TV and mobile screens into a horror show: The guy with the dead brother, the mother with the dead son, the man with his restaurant or shop lying in ruins, oranges lying in half burnt heaps, a religious flag draped over a half broken minaret of some mosque, walls and vehicles charred beyond recognition.

All channels have shown reports about how the town has been alight with atrocities. This is their job: To let the Indian citizens see for themselves what is happening in the capital of India. Each evening in media panel discussions, however, government spokespersons gloss over these images. As they indulge in verbal duels with rival parties’ spokespersons, they indulge in whataboutry: What about 1984? What about Bhagalpur riots? And so on. They point out vociferously how mostly Hindus were hurt. They also hint that it was a foul conspiracy hatched against their government by vested interests in India and abroad who wished to tarnish India’s domestic politics and its shining image abroad.

The newly-elected Chief Minister of Delhi is seen praying at Rajghat instead of touring the affected areas. The law and order machinery including the police are with the Central government, the newly victorious AAP Party’s spokesperson says glibly; we are doing what we can.

Who does the media believe? It goes by professional factual reporting showing the actual damage and holding power holders or its flunkies to account. Does this necessitate the I&B ministry to muzzle this under laws dating back to pre-digital media? The two separate orders the ministry has issued against the Malayalam channels claim they have both violated the Programme Code of the Cable Network (Regulations) Act of 1995.

Former Finance Minister and Congress MP P Chidambaram disagreed vociferously, demanding an immediate revocation of this order and said the ministry had played the role of prosecutor, jury and justice and created a ‘travesty of justice’. He dubbed the order “an unconstitutional interference with the freedom of the Press.”

All media entities as also political parties in the Opposition were quick to protest. Finally, within 24 hours, the gag order was lifted early Saturday morning at 1.30 a.m.

As a nation, we all agree that incendiary visuals may deepen disaffection. The responsible mainstream media is also well aware of this and takes care not to show faces or underscore communal identities. But we also know that during riots, carefully embedded paid trolls employed by political parties flood the social media with untruths thereby fanning the fires.

One example of this is a morphed clipping of a major Hindi daily doctored to show the AAP party doling out relief selectively to minority victims. This is sadly a time when the wise and experienced media monitoring bodies, that also doubled up as protective umbrellas for responsible mainstream media — the PIB, the Central Press Accreditation Committee and the Press Council — all stand truncated and divested of much of their earlier authority.

It was even more essential for the Information and Broadcast Ministry not to have moved in such haste because it belittles its image as a protector of Article 19(A). The words of Nadine Gordimer, the often censored and exiled Nobel Laureate writer and defender of the freedom of expression, come to mind, “It is not that, in the end Censorship stands revealed as a senseless act…(as) the weapon of information control, thought control, idea control and above all the control of healthy doubt and questioning, it cannot even satisfy those whose moral standards it is supposed to be upholding”.

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