Congress scion Rahul Gandhi has never been accused of being very bright. His ignorance is often appalling especially on Twitter.
Look at this:
— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) November 4, 2016
The Congress vice-president must know that the draconian law that empowers a government to black out TV channels at whim was first brought in by his own party’s government in 1995. Will somebody please tell him that? He should also be told that it was again a Congress government, which actually banned a channel for a month in 2007 though for different reasons.
To start at the beginning, the Narasimha Rao government of the Congress enacted the law that was patently hostile to the media. Later, NDA's Atal Behari Vajpayee government made it downright nasty.
The Narendra Modi government has found it handy to force NDTV India to go off air for a day on 9 November for having allegedly revealed sensitive details of the offensive against terrorists at Pathankot in January this year. Modi must consider those officials and politicians who came up with or supported this idea to be his enemies.
The law in question goes by the title of The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995, and has a vaguely worded and absurd Section 20 that gives the government sweeping powers against channels. This Section 20 originally had the following paragraph in 1995 when the Narasimha Rao government enacted the law:
20. Power to prohibit operation of cable television network in public interest
Where the Central Government thinks it necessary or expedient so to do in public interest, it may prohibit the operation of any cable television network in such areas as it may, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify in this behalf.
The Vajpayee government thought it fit to add the following lines to it in 2000.
Where the Central Government thinks it necessary or expedient so to do in the
interest of the —
(i) sovereignty or integrity of India; or
(ii) security of India; or
(iii) friendly relations of India with any foreign State; or
(iv) public order, decency or morality,
it may, by order, regulate or prohibit the transmission or re-transmission of any channel or programme.
The words used in (i), (ii), (iii) and (iv) are so conveniently vague and wonderfully elastic that any channel can be anytime accused of committing ghastly crimes against the country if the government so wishes.
This unilateral and draconian section — which reminds us of a wartime clamp-down — befits a banana republic or a rogue nation, but not the vibrant democracy that India claims to be or must strive to be.
This is not the first time that Indian channels are being questioned about the way they go about covering anti-terrorist operations. The Supreme Court went to the extent of using the word "reckless" to describe the reporting of operations against Ajmal Kasab and other jihadi members who attacked Mumbai on 26 November, 2008.
While confirming the death sentence on Kasab on 29 August, 2012, Justices Aftab Alam and CK Prasad said the coverage of the Mumbai attacks led to a situation where, on the one hand, the terrorists were completely hidden and the security forces had no means to know their exact positions or the kind of firearms and explosives they possessed and, on the other, the positions of the security forces, their weapons and all their operational movements "were being watched by the collaborators across the border on TV screens and being communicated to the terrorists".
The Bench minced no words when it said the channels had been chasing TRP ratings. Whether TV channels indeed inadvertently helped the perpetrators of 26/11 attacks, though theoretically possible, is not only doubtful but can never be proved.
Earlier, the Manmohan Singh government issued "advisories" to TV channels twice in 2008 and once in 2009 telling them to desist from reporting details that would give away the location and movement of security forces during anti-terror operations.
The present government came up with similar dos and don’ts during March 2015 anti-terror operations and has now gone a step ahead with the one-day ban on NDTV India. This was, of course, just what the legion of "liberals" and compulsive Modi-baiters were waiting for. They were quick to lash out at the Modi government as if it’s the first one after India’s Independence to be hostile to media. But that’s another matter.
This is not the first time that Indian channels are being questioned about the way they go about covering anti-terrorist operations.
Last year, when Arun Jaitley had the I&B portfolio, he said: "...a very strict discipline on the kind of reporting which is to take place from the place of the incident will have to be maintained".
But the question that comes upfront is: Who should enforce this discipline if such discipline is indeed necessary?
Accusing journalists of compromising national security is as old as the media itself across the world. And advising governments to allow the media to regulate itself is nearly as old.
But it must be said at the cost of repetition that self-regulation by the media continues to be the best bet in the interests of democracy and as insurance against abuse of law and score-settling. Instead of brandishing a flurry of advisories and enacting questionable laws, the government can enter into a dialogue with whatever channel or channels it has a grouse against. And a dialogue, it must be remembered, is a two-way thing.
Forcing channels to go off air reeks of censorship of the worst kind and official vindictiveness. To deal with individuals, be it journalists or others, whose actions allegedly go against national interests, the government has the option of using the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) after hearing what the alleged offender has to say.
But even if the channels have not erred in their coverage of anti-terror operations, they are not entirely above blame in their treatment of news and views in general. Those who run channels must use their own better judgement to decide what’s good for the country and leave no scope for allegations of "reckless" coverage of things whether it’s the rape of a woman or an operation against terrorists.
Television’s credibility has been taking a beating and a little explanation to viewers why it’s doing what it’s doing can help restore trust. Self-policing by way of appointing ombudsmen of unquestionable integrity or by other means can ward off or reduce assaults on media’s independence by governments and political parties.
Besides, the mindless coverage of sundry news events on most English and other language channels in India is a direct result of not just the TRP race but lack of enough training for the editorial staff. The exponential growth in channels is not matched by the availability of the right kind of people in sufficient numbers to run news operations. As a result, those who have no business to go anywhere near newsrooms actually run them. Their clumsiness is clear to even casual TV viewers, leave alone professionals. Some channels can boast of a few bright and very talented journalists, but they are too few.
Together with self-policing, the channels must think of ways to deal with the manpower crisis and raise its own credibility so that it’s better off to deal with attacks of the kind it is facing now.
The author tweets @sprasadindia