The view that there should be complete synergy between the stakeholders of democracy is dangerous. On the contrary, the character of a robust democracy is defined by the friction between its four pillars — executive, legislature, judiciary and a free media. An existence of tension between these forces is a good thing and ultimately works to strengthen the institutions.
But this tension is a force of good as long as it is not allowed to degenerate into an ugly free-for-all, the kind of which we witnessed over the weekend since the government first proposed and then put on hold a move to take NDTV India off the air for a day on 9 November. None of the dramatis personae — the government, media or the opposition — emerge from this macabre play without sullying their credibility.
The Narendra Modi government's image has taken yet another heavy beating, and this time it has only itself to blame. Its actions lacked conviction, its communication strategy was in a shambles, and it moved with all the deftness of a bull in a china shop. An interplay between democracy's stakeholders must follow a clearly defined set of guiding principles rather than ad hocism. The Centre erred in slapping even a token "ban" — howsoever grave the channel's error might have been — and then botched it up further in an attempt to sound magnanimous.
The government believes that NDTV India jeopardised national security while covering the Pathankot terror attack and that it violated the newly introduced clause — 6(1)p — to the Programme Code of the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994, that restricts live coverage of terrorist attacks in the interest of national security. The amended rules prohibit any telecasting of strategically important information during a counter-terrorist operation and restrict the channels to periodic official briefings.
There are two important points to be made here. One, it is undeniable that terrorists and its handlers can exploit real-time dissemination of information from electronic medium to plan their strategy and there have been cases — noticeably during the 26/11 Mumbai attacks — where these have been used to devastating effect.
The Supreme Court in 2012 had lambasted the "reckless" coverage of Mumbai terror attacks and found that "by covering live the terrorist attack on Mumbai in the way it was done, Indian TV channels were not serving any national interest or social cause. On the contrary, they were acting in their own commercial interest, putting national security in jeopardy." As Times of India had reported, "the court found from the transcripts of conversations between terrorists holed up in Taj Hotel, Oberoi Hotel and Nariman House and their handlers in Pakistan that the terror masterminds were watching the live telecast and got important inputs about the positioning of security forces."
However, and now we come to the second point, as terrorists bring their violence close to us and into our living rooms, media is also trying to keep up with evolution. Mainstream media around the world are increasingly putting self-regulation in place while covering these "live" situations and Indian channels are also following suit. It is instructive to remember that even while ripping apart media's handling of the 26/11 attacks, the Supreme Court did not advise press freedom to be subjected to government scrutiny.
And therein lies the crux of the problem. NDTV India may or may not have erred in airing information that the government says was "sensitive", but which according to the channel was anyway available in public domain. But the moment the government took it upon itself to scrutinise and then penalise the channel — even if it was a token penalty — it embarked on the slippery slope of media censorship. While evaluating the role of one pillar of democracy — a free media — it vested too much power on bureaucracy and opened itself to criticism that the bar may be lowered in the future.
It wasn't as if there were no options before the government to send a message across that media must behave more responsibly when it comes to matters of national security. The ministry could have, as The Hindu points out in its editorial, approached the News Broadcasting Standards Authority which was set up by the News Broadcasters Association in the light of the 2008 Mumbai attacks recognising the need for a more restrained and responsible coverage. It could have also set up a quasi-judicial body or formed an independent panel to scrutinise NDTV India's coverage. Instead, in its actions, the government came across as a heavy-handed bully and not nearly as a power guided by "liberal, democratic ethos", as Union Information and Broadcasting Minister M Venkaiah Naidu has claimed.
The media, on the other hand, has emerged from the incident as a shrill, hyperbolic force that instead of reason, relies on rhetoric to get a point across to the detriment of its credibility. The abundant equivalences comparing the I&B ministry's decision to the 1975 Emergency were amusing and worrying in equal measure. Amusing because, the plethora of articles in every medium — print, electronic or digital — accusing Modi government of declaring "undeclared Emergency" are the greatest proof that such accusations were ridiculous. While they were right to criticise the government for its ham-handed ways, such rhetorical gymnastics devalue the real horrors of Emergency.
During the 21-month period starting June 1975, the Indira Gandhi government, recalls a recent Indian Express article, muzzled the press by censoring or banning most mainstream dailies. "The Indian Express and The Statesman left the lead editorial space blank as a mark of protest. Correspondents of The Times of London, The Daily Telegraph, The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and The Los Angeles Times were expelled. Reporters of The Economist and The Guardian left after receiving threats. The BBC withdrew its correspondent. The home ministry told Parliament in May 1976 that 7,000 persons had been held for circulating clandestine literature opposing the Emergency. Kishore Kumar was banned by All India Radio after he refused to support the Youth Congress."
By equating the Modi government's decision with Emergency, the media has shown itself to be not worthy of the responsibility that is vested upon it. It risks devaluing itself to a political force instead of the being the neutral watchdog.
The most disgraced lot to have emerged from this fiasco are the political parties who tried to claim the moral high ground by going along with the media's assumptions that an Emergency has been promulgated In India. The Congress appeared to be burning in righteous indignation led by its vice-president whose knowledge of history is matched only by his leadership abilities. Rahul Gandhi may have forgotten that the UPA had banned 21 channels during its tenure due to various reasons and that his grandmother subjected Indian citizens to the sole instance of Emergency.
AAP supremo, and Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal exhorted all TV channels to go off the air on 9 November to show solidarity with NDTV. "I hope the whole media goes off (the) air for a day in solidarity with NDTV," Kejriwal had tweeted.
For someone who is such a staunch believer in press freedom, it was odd that Kejriwal would threaten to send media persons to jail for allegedly promoting Narendra Modi. As Times of India reported in 2014, a video of Kejriwal's diatribe against the media at a fundraiser in Nagpur saw him promise an inquiry against media persons if AAP came to power. "If our government comes to power then we will set an inquiry into this. And along with media people, all will be sent to jail," he was heard saying in the clip.
Another of Modi's virulent critics, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, has an even "greater record" when it comes to tolerating criticism. Apart from the well-publicised instance of a Jadavpur University professor who was sent to jail for sharing a cartoon, there have been reports of a youth in Malda getting arrested for making a derogatory remark against the TMC chief on Facebook.
As mentioned before, friction between pillars of democracy is welcome. But all stakeholders must act with equal responsibility to ensure that it doesn't become a free-for-all.