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An open letter to NDTV: Pentagon Papers have a lesson for our media and government


Radhika Roy,

I must, at the outset, express my highest regard for you as a journalist. I also hold in high esteem the television channel you co-founded with your husband, Prannoy Roy, another journalist of formidable repute. I am an admirer of both of you since the World This Week days.

. It has been known as the voice of sanity. One could say, with confidence, that NDTV has had the courage of conviction to speak truth to power for years, rather decades.

No wonder then that you have had frequent run-ins with those in power. The government’s decision to take your channel off air for a day on 9 November is symptomatic of the vindictiveness of the ruling elite. If you do not toe their line, they will get at you in whichever way possible. Incidentally, when the Ministry for Information & Broadcasting passed the order “to prohibit transmission or re-transmission of NDTV India channel for one day on any platform throughout India with effect from 00.01 hrs on 9 November 2016 till 00.01 hours of 10 November, 2016”, it gave out the reason that your broadcast “revealed strategically-sensitive details”.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

As you know, you were served a show-cause notice way back in January; the notice said that NDTV India had revealed sensitive information such as location of the ammunition depot and residential areas during its coverage of the Pathankot attack which could have been used by the terrorists in causing loss of life of citizens and security forces, apart from collateral damage to physical assets.

Your plea that most other channels did similar reporting went unheeded. You were singled out for punishment for your repeated offence of showing the government in bad light. But the bigwigs of the ruling party and the government kept saying that you are being punished as your action compromised India’s security.

All hyper-nationalists have supported the government action against your channel because they think that the freedom of the media must end when the security concerns of the country begins.
But then what involves the country’s security and who decides it? Our ultra-nationalists will argue that the decision must lie with the bureaucrats, and by extension, with the politicians. And the media must fall in line.

I, and people like me, always thought that you and your channel would refuse to be browbeaten by this brand of faux nationalism and carry on the task without fear or favour. But I must say with consternation that you rather chose the softer option to appease these aggressive nationalist forces.

Please recall the incidents last month.

After the big splash in our media about India’s successful surgical strike in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Pakistan pooh-poohed the Indian assertion and took a retinue of international journalists to the affected region to convince them that India was making a false claim. That is when some Opposition political leaders insisted that India should release the evidence of the strike to call Pakistan’s bluff. In fact, the government should have done it on its own to destroy Pakistan’s credibility in the world media. But, surprisingly, the government agencies went about pressurising the media houses to play down the demand for release of the evidence of the surgical strike.

Your decision to drop P Chidambaram’s interview on the issue was taken just about that time. Please remember that the interview had been done by one of your star anchors, Barkha Dutt, who has been in an editorial leadership position for far too long to know what responsible journalism is all about. Chidambaram is no revolutionary leader that he would spew venom against the Indian state. He is a mainstream politician who espouses the Congress position from time to time.

Your channel ran the promo for the interview throughout the day on 6 October, but dropped it in the evening apparently to avoid politicisation of army action (but you had no qualms about telecasting that day's press conference held by Amit Shah, who hailed the surgical strike).

In a strong reply to the criticism over this decision, you said: “…We are driven by editorial and journalistic integrity and the belief that the political mud-slinging regarding the surgical strikes without a shred of evidence was actually damaging to our national security. We do not believe that we are obliged to carry every shred of drivel that has now come to pass as public discourse.”(Was it that what Chidambaram said was drivel but what Shah said were pearls of wisdom?)

But, if 'evidence' really mattered to you, you would have taken the lead in demanding evidence of our surgical strike in Pakistan (which our government claimed without any corroborating evidence). Was it that the consideration of security, or rather, patriotism, or sheer political blackmail, that prevented you from performing the role befitting a highly-acclaimed media house?

I am surprised that seasoned professionals like you and Prannoy forgot that famous lessons from American history about the freedom of the media vis-à-vis the security of the country. I want you to recollect how The New York Times had the temerity to publish the classified documents of the Vietnam War, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, who worked for the Ministry of Defence.

Former president Richard M Nixon, like most of our ruling politicians, invoked the security concern. His attorney-general, John N Mitchell, shot off the following letter to Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times: “I have been advised by the secretary of defence that the material published in The New York Times on 13 and 14 June, 1971 captioned ‘Key Texts from Pentagon’s Vietnam Study’ contains information relating to the national defense of the United States and bears a top secret classification.

“As such, publication of this information is directly prohibited by the provisions of the Espionage Law, Title 18, United States Code, Section 793.

“Further publication of information of this character will cause irreparable injury to the defence interests of the United States.

“Accordingly, I respectfully request that you publish no further information of this character and advise me that you have made arrangements for the return of these documents to the Department of Defence.”

The New York Times had revealed, for sure, strategically-sensitive details that would compromise the US security in Vietnam. This revelation was not inadvertent; it was deliberate. The newspaper believed that as a professional media organisation, it owed it to the citizens of the US to tell the truth about the government’s shenanigans. The journalists were, no doubt, thrilled when the publisher of The New York Times wrote back to the Justice Department saying that it would not comply with the ‘request’.

The Times must respectfully decline the request of the attorney-general, believing that it is in the interest of the people of this country to be informed of the material contained in this series of articles”, said Sulzberger.

This response was a direct slap in the face of Nixon who then sought an injunction in the court against further publication citing serious threat to national security.

But the Supreme Court of the US held that even if the threat to US security was real by the revelation of the documents, the US citizens had a right to know and that right did override the security concerns. The court made it a point to stress that the state must not overemphasise the security threat so as to suppress open debate on public policies and censor dissent or disagreement under the pretext of protecting national security.

I hope you will agree that The Pentagon Papers episode has a lesson for you, and I am sure that it has a bigger lesson for our government and its harebrained cheerleaders who want complete secrecy in the name of our security.

(Firstpost is from the same stable as CNN-News18 which competes with NDTV)

Updated Date: Nov 07, 2016 11:38 AM

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