At 10 pm on 21 April, 2014, NDTV Good Times ran a series called Why am I sill single?
The mandarins of the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) ministry at once decided that the programme was "vulgar, indecent and adult in nature". Remember, it was the last month of the UPA government.
After issuing a show-cause notice and summarily rejecting the defence of the channel, the ministry ordered the channel to go off air for a day on 9 April, 2015, by which time the NDA government was in power.
During the Congress-led UPA rule (between 2005 and 2014), NDTV and its sister channels were hauled up by the I&B ministry at least eight times. So were many other channels. In 2013 alone, 14 channels were taken off air for periods ranging from one to ten days, largely for telecasting 'A' certified films or "obscene" content. The channels included Zoom TV, Comedy Central, AXN, FTV and ABN Andhra Jyothi (a conservative and respected Telugu channel).
Under the Modi regime, NDTV has got into trouble with the government thrice so far. So have many other channels, of course.
It is clear that irrespective of the party in power, the I&B ministry has been going after TV channels, armed with the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 and the rules framed under it. For years now, the ministry's pen-pushers have been gleefully playing the roles of Editors-in-Chief for the channels from their comfortable office in Delhi's Shastri Bhavan and evidently enjoying themselves. Based on their subjective judgement of what's right what's not, they have been dishing out orders, and sometimes getting into even minute editorial management. In some past cases, they ordered channels to shift programmes to late hours.
While obscenity was the chief weapon that the ministry used against the channels earlier, national security is the new stick that the current government is beating the TV channels with.
Look at the three cases against the NDTV group under the present government:
1) The ministry said that the remark of Rajya Sabha member Majeed Memon during a programme on the channel called 'Truth vs Hype - the riddle of Yakub Memon' on 1 August, 2015, following the execution of Yakub, denigrated India's judiciary. After prolonged proceedings, NDTV was let off with a warning on June 1, 2016 to be "careful" in future.
2) The ministry took objection to NDTV India's description of Yakub's hanging as "unfortunate" in a telecast on 30 July, 2015. This channel was also "warned".
3) Then came the order last week asking NDTV India to go off air for a day on 9 November for having allegedly leaked "sensitive" details in its coverage of the Pathankot terror attack.
Surely, the government has a right to be worried over the leak of "sensitive" details, but the proceedings in the latest case against NDTV India do not seem to indicate that the channel compromised national security in any way. Here is how the case went:
The allegation against the channel was that, during its telecast on 4 January 2016, when the operation against terrorists in the Pathankot airbase was still on, it leaked details of the MiGs, fighter planes, rocket launchers, mortars, helicopters and fuel tanks inside. The channel was also accused of having revealed the existence of a school in the airbase.
On 29 January, NDTV India was issued a show-cause notice. The channel replied to it on 5 February.
In its reply, the channel said its coverage was "entirely balanced and responsible". It said that, at a time when sections of the media were questioning delays in the counter-terrorist operations, NDTV India was only explaining to viewers why it became necessary for the security forces to go slow in a way lives of innocent civilians and defence assets at the airbase were not endangered.
As for leaking details of ammunition at the airbase, the channel pointed out that the information was already in public domain. To substantiate that, it submitted excerpts of coverage from ABP News, Zee News, India TV and The Hindu (2 January), The Telegraph, The Indian Express, The Times of India (3 January) and The Tribune and Hindustan Times (4 January).
The ministry was magnanimous enough to take a look at all this but only to summarily reject it, after indulging in plenty of nitpicking in its oral examination of the channel's representatives on 25 July, 2016. Without any basis, the ministry ruled that while other newspapers and channels only supplied "bits and pieces" of information, NDTV India "appeared to give out" the exact location of terrorists with regard to sensitive military assets.
This gives rise to two suspicions. One: Confronted with evidence that other channels had given the same "sensitive" information, the ministry came up with a face-saving order. Two: The ministry, for whatever reason, was singling out NDTV India.
Considering the implications of all this for media's freedom, the government must spell out exactly what was that information that NDTV India give out which others hadn't-or repeal the one-day ban order on the channel at once. The fact that the previous government muzzled the channels does in no ways justifies the present government's actions.
More importantly, it must be recognised by journalists of all hues that the very existence of Section 20 of the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act 1995, which empowers governments to ban channels at whim, has been posing a serious threat to the freedom of the Press whichever party is in power.
Though the existence of this 1995 Act and the excesses committed under it never came under serious scrutiny earlier, habitual Modi-baiters and self-styled liberals have raked up the latest case, painting the Prime Minister as media's worst-ever enemy for their own reasons. But the reasons why they are saying it should not deflect us from what they are saying.
Enough has already been said about the dangers of having a government arrogate to itself the power of policing media, even if some channels go about their job of covering news in general, anti-terror operations in particular, irresponsibly.