NDTV India ban: Freedom of Speech can't be exploited to jeopardise national security

Flying abroad recently on an international flight, an erudite Indian journalist, well established in high-end social circuits at home and abroad, especially in our immediate neighbourhood in general and our western neighbour in particular, wondered aloud how the term 'presstitutes' came about in India, whether it was coined by a military veteran-turned-politician and why this term?

She had probably never heard of John Swinton, the former chief of staff of The New York Times, who addressed New York Press Club in 1953, saying:

“There is no such thing, at this date of the world's history, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job."

Swinton went on to say:

"If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone. The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth; to lie outright; to pervert; to vilify; to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell the country for his daily bread. You know it and I know it and what folly is this toasting an independent press. We are the tools and vassals of the rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes."

Representational image. Twitter @ndtv

Representational image. Twitter @ndtv

Whether ‘intellectual prostitutes’ is better than ‘presstitutes’ or vice-versa may be debated but speaking of the aforementioned reporter (who was part of an Indian delegation,) she announced in a bilateral discussion with a friendly country, “I do not agree with any of my delegation members that Pakistan should be called a terrorist state”. This was more shocking since no other country including Pakistan was present — this being a bilateral dialogue between India and the friendly country. When told later that she should have spoken this way, she shot back reasons A, B, C, D, and E why she cannot be faulted — the sum total of which was ‘Freedom of Speech’. When asked whether she saw any difference between a debate on TV in India versus projecting one's own country’s viewpoint as part of an Indian delegation especially when Pakistan has upped its proxy war on India, she gave a blank look as if some gibberish was being thrown her way.

Not to mention that when told our response to Pakistan must include the sub-conventional, her query after years of journalism was, “What is sub-conventional?”. Of course she took umbrage when another delegation member (a former IAS official) told her that she appeared to be the elder version of a Indian television journalist and columnist who works as a consulting editor with a New Delhi-based TV channel.

Now let us look at the commotion over NDTV India being blocked for 24 hours for broadcasting sensitive information during the terrorist attack on the IAF airbase at Pathankot. The Opposition is delighted with added ammunition to disrupt the forthcoming Winter Session of Parliament, in addition to the OROP-related suicide by Subedar Ram Kishan Grewal, the disappearance of JNU student Najeeb Ahmad (could he have left the country?), surgical strikes, civilian casualties due Pakistani ceasefire violations and what-have-you — official work, including GST, be damned. NDTV India’s day-long ban is being equated with the years of Emergency. According to others, India is going the Pakistan way, with Islamabad having imposed restrictions on Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida, putting him on the Exit Control List for breaking a story on the tiff between Pakistan’s civil and military leadership.

The intriguing part is that while Pakistan acted against Almeida almost instantaneously, the action against NDTV India comes almost 10 months after the event. Besides, what does the single-day ban convey? What type of token for having broadcast “sensitive information”? The decision reportedly was taken by an inter-ministerial committee (IMC) comprising joint secretaries from the ministries of Home, Defence, External Affairs, I&B, Health and Family, Women and Child Development, plus representative of the Advertising Standards Council of India — all in all, a diverse and august group. According to the grapevine, the IMC found the TV channel to have violated the provisions of the Program Code, specifically Clause 6 (1) (p) of the code, in its coverage of the Pathankot terrorist attack.

The Program and Advertising Code of the Cable TV Network Rules, 1994 has been incorporated in the Cable Act and is taken from the content code governing All India Radio. But when Clause 6 (1) (p) of the code was added in June 2015, doesn’t the action against NDTV after almost 10 months after the broadcast show the lackadaisical and callous manner in which we deal with what has been referred to as a leak of “sensitive information”? After the elapse of so many months, it is difficult to remember what the broadcast really was considering every channel was broadcasting continuous coverage of the terror attack. But what exactly did NDTV India broadcast that was not being broadcast by some of the other channels, if not all? If the information endangered national security, did the IMC inform the NSA? And, isn’t a one-day ban akin to the knee-jerk reaction of arresting Hurriyat leader SAS Geelani and then sending a delegation to meet him next day?

The Editors Guild of India is up in arms:

"The decision to take the channel off the air for a day is a direct violation of the freedom of the media and therefore the citizens of India, and amounts to harsh censorship imposed by the government reminiscent of the Emergency. This first-of-its-kind order to impose a blackout has seen the Central government entrust itself with the power to intervene in the functioning of the media and take arbitrary punitive action as and when it does not agree with the coverage."

The case of a token ban on NDTV India and its justification can be argued by concerned parties, even the highest — at the Supreme Court-level, and one cannot argue whether it was right or wrong. However, as a nation we must acknowledge that our reporting is devoid of any sense of national security when needed most.

Some of the prominent examples include:

- Entire layout of Parliament shown post the terrorist attack, including who sits where and routes of entry and exit.
- Continuous coverage during terrorist attacks especially the 26 November, 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai giving location and movement of own troops, giving advantage to Pakistani terrorists.
- Pincers and arrows of Strike Corps objectives in enemy territory being shown after corps-level exercises.
- Options for future operations being openly discussed by TV channels with maps and models post the recent surgical strikes.
- Visuals and broadcasts that incite racial and communal violence.

Forget China and Pakistan, but name one other country where broadcasts like the above are made. They all are careful not to jeopardise national security. Where, and if, national security is involved, forget token bans, there should be prosecution — Freedom of Speech can’t be exploited to jeopardise national security.

The author is a veteran Lieutenant-General of the Indian Army

(Firstpost is from the same stable as IBN7 which competes with NDTV India)

Updated Date: Nov 07, 2016 09:55 AM

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