In the late hours of Thursday evening, we learnt that the information and broadcasting ministry had prohibited the retransmission of NDTV India, the Hindi Language 24x7 news channel of the NDTV group for 24 hours starting on 00:01 Hours on 9 November 2016 to 00:01 Hours on 10 November 2016 for allegedly revealing "strategically sensitive" details during its coverage of the Pathankot attacks this January.
Obviously, the Editors' Guild of India is up in arms about it and have rightly called it an attack on media freedom and the independence of the media. The problem that arises though is this, how does the government go about issuing a ban on its own accord without actually having to take NDTV to court?
If NDTV were a newspaper that had allegedly breached any standard of journalistic ethics then the government would actually have no power to go after NDTV at all, this is because the Press Council Act of 1978 creates the Press Council of India as the apex body for the regulation of the Press in India. This statutory body enjoys independence from the government and acts as the regulator that prescribes and enforces professional standards for the print media in India. The council, not the government gets to decide when a print journalist has crossed the line.
When it comes to cable TV news, though, the situation is slightly different, the regime under the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act, 1994 treats NDTV on par with Cartoon Network in terms of the powers it gives the government to regulate. This is why the government has the ability to even pass such an order. No doubt, NDTV and their lawyers must be examining their legal options right now to challenge such an order and it would be premature at this point to comment on the merits of such an order passed by the government.
But the very fact that the government is the one that passes such an order, does open the larger debate of whether it is time to start regulating television news as news rather than as merely television content as any order passed by any government anywhere against a news channel will always be one that is seen as a colourable order. The UK has an independent media watchdog by way of Ofcom short for the Office of Communications which is an independent media watchdog that is recognised by statute and has enforcement powers to enforce the regulations.
There are always going to be cases where media channels are accused of breaching journalistic ethics or compromising national security. However, the process by which they are judged or these charges are adjudicated must be a transparent one and must be one that has the appearance of fairness. The government must take its case to a third party rather than make it a finding of fact on its own and issue a punishment. This will always put the government at odds with the rest of the press and the public. It’s time to establish an independent television media watchdog on the lines of the Press Council of India to ensure the freedom of the televised press. It is also essential that this protection is extended to journalists who work on online platforms. Other protections such as those afforded under the Working Journalists Act should also be extended to ensure that any governmental action taken against the press or journalists doesn’t smell of bias or targeting.
The importance of a free press can be best summed up by this famous quote: "A free press is the last defence against the tyranny of stupidity." This was said not by one of the great heroes of free speech or but funnily enough from Clayton Harding, Jeff Bridges's character from the 2008 film How to Lose Friends and Alienate People; something this government is of late becoming rather an expert at.