Previous posts on this blog has made it amply clear that I am not a votary of absolute freedom of expression. I believe in reasonable restrictions on the freedom of expression when those restrictions can be linked rationally, to the larger interests of the society.
Let me also confess that I have not seen the programme aired by the NDTV India, on the Pathankot airbase, which earned the one day ban for itself. This posts is not about the merits of the NDTV programme or the decision of the Government. This post is about the procedural justice or lack of it in arriving at the decision.
Temporary ban on broadcasting is nothing new to Indian television. Many channels have faced such temporary bans, usually on the grounds of obscenity and disrespect to women. However, those channels like Fashion TV are not mainstream and the issue involved are not of much concern to the general public. Therefore, the public were not even aware of the ban in most cases and even when aware were not concerned about it.
NDTV India ban is perhaps the first, in relation to a news report. Power to ban TV channels or newspapers, vested in the hands of the executive is surely problematic, for various reasons. Firstly, concepts like public interest and national security are highly subjective and prone to misuse. Secondly, criticism of the government can easily be interpreted as one against national security. Thirdly, since the government is likely to be at the receiving end of such news reports any decision by the Government itself would amount to judging own affairs. Fourthly, the principles of natural justice demand that the accused party be given a proper opportunity to defend its case before a punitive action is taken. IN this case, NDTV India is not given an opportunity to state its case. Lastly, objective exercise of a power demands equal treatment of all complaints. There are allegations that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry is very selective in dealing with complaints against news reports.
There may be situations when a channel reports in a manner, which compromises an operation or national security. There is also no doubt that actions must be taken against such channels. However, the issue remains as to who should decide whether a report is against national security. If the Government of the day and its officers can decide and ban a Channel, then the media freedom is surely at peril. We have seen central ministers pontificating on the need to refrain from raising any questions even when all the available evidences indicate blatant murder by policemen in a staged fake encounter! Can a government act against news reports on such issues, by holding them as against national security?
The need for an independent authority to judge the appropriateness of a report cannot be overemphasized. A free and fair independent media is one of the cornerstones of the democracy. Brow beating by the executive, or undeclared bans like the one being witnessed in the courts of Kerala, can damage the democracy itself. Therefore, the NDTV India ban is not a trivial issue to be ignored by the society.
I am sure NDTV India will seek legal remedies against the ban. I hope the judiciary will stand up and protect the freedom of expression of the media, against the arbitrary onslaught by the executive. I am also worried that my hope in the judiciary may be misplaced, considering what is going on in the courts across Kerala. Judiciary, right up to the Supreme Court has not, so far, shown any inclination to protect the people’s right to know and the media’s right to report what is happening in the courts. When the Judiciary is unable to deal with the hooliganism of a few lawyers, will it be able to stand up to the might of Union Government and protect the guaranteed freedoms? I would love to remain optimistic, at least for the sake of democracy.
I am not as sure about the media as a whole standing up in solidarity with NDTV India, in this critical hour. Ideally, I would like to see the entire news media going off the air on November 9th in solidarity with NDTV India. Jointly going off the air is the best way to inform the Executive that any attack on the freedom of media will be resisted, jointly. However, the compromised corporate ownership and selfie-journalism may prevent the media, to take such a principled stand on November 9th.
If the judiciary and media are not able to live up to the expectations, we the people of India will have to intervene and play an important role. After all, when the freedom to report is curtailed it is our right to know what is going on, is affected. If the media’s powers are curtailed today, it will not be too long before our civil rights are also attacked. The ‘Emergency’ is merely a term that indicates certain situation. Even without the use of the term ‘emergency’ we might end up in an emergency like situation, if we do not strive safeguard our own constitutional rights.
Let us, the people of India, stand in solidarity with the right to report, right to fair trial, and right to justice, and boycott all Television News Channels for a day on November 9th. Let this boycott be a message to both the executive and the media that 2016 is not 1976 and emergency like measures will not be tolerated, anymore. Let us think above our political differences and affiliations, and take a united stand against arbitrary decisions that affect our fundamental rights.