ON AIR: EMERGENCY-ERA BLACKOUT
|Sumi Sukanya Dutta|
|New Delhi, Nov. 4: The Centre’s decision to ban a Hindi news channel for a day for allegedly revealing “strategically sensitive information” during its coverage of the Pathankot anti-terror operations has been equated to harsh censorship “reminiscent of the Emergency”.
November 9 — the appointed day of self-exile — will be the day other Indian media outlets would be reporting on the US election results. The irony — the largest democracy in the world denying a news channel a chance to report the elections in the most powerful democracy in the world – appears to have lost on whoever made the ban recommendation.
An official indirectly confirmed the mechanical nature of the process, saying that once a decision is taken to ask a channel to go off the air, a date within a week is chosen.
The Editors Guild of India called the order to NDTV India “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”.
The condemnation and choice of words came less than 48 hours Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the “Emergency period also exposed the media… there were very few people, very few who decided to challenge the Emergency”.
Today, more than a few condemned the “Emergency-like” ban on the television channel.
The News Broadcaster’s Association (NBA), Broadcast Editors’ Association, Press Club of India, Indian Women Press Corps and the Delhi Union of Journalists were among those who spoke out and demanded that the off-air order be revoked.
Information and broadcasting minister Venkaiah Naidu and his deputy Rajyavardhan Rathore, whose ministry issued the order on the recommendation of an inter-ministerial panel, were not available for comment. But officials in the ministry said that there was “no question of going back on the order”.
Ravish Kumar, senior executive editor of NDTV India and the public face of the Hindi news channel, had blacked out the TV screen during the peak of the Jawaharlal Nehru University controversy in February to protest the “lynch-mob” mentality of many channels that echoed the government and sought to malign the students.
The ministry had contended that NDTV India’s coverage violated a programme code under the Cable TV Network Rules that disallow live coverage of anti-terrorist operations by security forces. These rules seek to limit media coverage to briefings by the government and army officials.
The order said the channel had “revealed information on the ammunition stockpiled in the airbase, MIGs, fighter-planes, rocket-launchers, mortars, helicopters, fuel-tanks among others, which was likely to be used by the terrorists or their handlers to cause massive harm, not only to national security, international standing of the country, but also (to) life of civilians and defence personnel.”
The Pathankot attack that began on January 2 this year was a massive failure of the security establishment. The government had said that there was at least a 24-hour intelligence alert that such an attack could happen.
The attackers crossed the border and entered India on the night of December 31. They managed to get inside the air force station and kill six soldiers, despite the alert, after kidnapping a senior police officer and his friend. Defence minister Manohar Parrikar himself admitted later that there were lapses in security.
Nearly 11 months after the attack, there is still no clarity on how many militants had attacked the base: four or six. One officer was killed in suspicious circumstances. He died during mopping-up to sanitise the base.
Later, the government has escorted a team from Pakistan into the base to investigate.
The particular clip to which the inter-ministerial committee objected was a phone-in report from Delhi by NDTV India’s regular defence beat correspondent, Rajeev Ranjan.
On January 4 – two full days after the attack began — Ranjan reported that militants may have hidden behind sensitive installations and may have taken refuge behind an ammunition dump.
Much information on military establishments is available in the public domain. It is common sense, for example, that a forward base of the military would have an ammunition yard. It is in showing and telecasting live operations that security may get compromised. NDTV India was not doing that.
Certainly, the armed forces are prickly about security, and their relationship with the media is delicate.
Retired Air Marshal Sumit Mukherjee, who has served in Pathankot, says: “In air force stations, there is always a notice board saying photography banned. We permit photography in a controlled environment. It is the panning cameras (TV channels) that may compromise security. But a lot has changed since the advent of satellite imagery and the GPS (global positioning system). If a tree just outside the perimeter wall or a building is shown, it could compromise security. An airbase is vulnerable. Manning a 25-30km perimeter wall is difficult.”
Ravish Kumar, the senior executive editor of the channel, said NDTV India had been singled out probably for not paying heed to the “floating messages like ‘do only positive debates and don’t question the authorities’.”
“Our channel, in general, and while covering anti-terror operations, is probably the most sober and balanced one, so this government action has come as bolt out of the blue. The portion of the report that the I&B ministry has raised objection to was already in the public domain,” Kumar said. “This looks like a punishment for not heeding messages that several ministers have been giving to media directly and indirectly in recent times.”
He added the channel’s legal department is exploring the option of moving court against the one-day blackout.
“We have never been pro- or anti-government. All we have done is raise pertinent questions and this is the very basic role of journalism,” he said. “If that is what ruffles babus sitting with magnifying glasses in the I&B ministry, there’s little we can do.”
The NBA said that it would have been “appropriate for the ministry to refer the alleged violations of NDTV India to the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, the independent self- regulator of the association.
But a senior official in the I&B ministry said: “We have, in fact, been lenient with the channel as the initial opinion was to take it off air for 30 days as per the provision in case of violations in covering anti-terror operations on TV.”
An official pointed out that in past 10 years, there had been 27 instances of channels being taken off air for breaching various provisions of the programme code. But, among them, he could list only two news channels – one for misreporting facts and another for showing a wrong map. The official said this was the first instance of a channel being punished forhttp://www.telegraphindia.com/1161105/jsp/frontpage/story_117598.jsp#.WB3Peuh942w