BY AMIT SEN
When the government thought of banning NDTV India for a day, it had never imagined it would face so much public anger and such bad press. The ban order was served on Thursday, the 3rd of November, but by Saturday the government had started sensing that it had lost the battle.
Sources say, a top official was asked to contact a senior editor in NDTV and arrange a meeting with the I&B minister Venkaiah Naidu. NDTV told the official that it was already going to the Supreme Court and was not interested in any rapproachement. The official hinted that if NDTV said that it will be more mindful in future, the ban could be lifted. Sources say, the official was surprised by the firm stand the NDTV editor took and informed the minister that NDTV was not ready for a compromise.
By Sunday, the government was in panic mode. The entire media was standing behind NDTV, opinion polls done, including those on right-wing websites, showed that NDTV had massive public sympathy. NDTV India’s star anchor Ravish Kumar’s show using mime artistes to register his protest had gone viral. National channels were beaming out pictures of a middle aged woman being dragged by the Delhi police as she sat in peaceful protest for her missing son.
Feelers were sent out again to senior NDTV editors and correspondents that the government wants to end it. Sources say, there was much relief when the ministry received word that Prannoy Roy was ready to meet I&B minister Venkaiah Naidu. By now, the government also knew that NDTV had hired a battery of top lawyers and had filed a petition in the Supreme Court. Lawyers who are privy to the development say that NDTV not only had a very sound argument that it had been singled out, but also a strong case that the ban on it was not legally valid.
On Monday morning, NDTV announced to the stock exchanges (it is a listed company) that it had gone to court against the government’s ban on its Hindi channel. The same evening Prannoy Roy and a team of senior editors agreed to meet the I&B minister. Just before the meeting, the minister held a press conference, which ended with a very, curious statement that “There is no ban… They have been issued an advisory. Let us see whether they follow the advisory or not.”
It appears NDTV’s firm stand at the meeting took the ministry by surprise. It had expected the channel to be more conciliatory. Instead, Prannoy Roy is believed to have stuck to his basic stand that NDTV has not done anything wrong, and will not make any request or appeal for the ban to be reconsidered. The minister is believed to have hinted that he agrees there had been a misunderstanding and that the facts should be reviewed.
The ministry requested the NDTV team to make an official representation for the ban to be put on hold. After much back and forth, and consultations with its lawyers, NDTV agreed to give an official letter provided a letter from the minister holding the one day ban in abeyance, would be handed over simultaneously. The ministry is believed to have said that, since all the key babus had left for the day the ministry’s letter would be issued the next day. The NDTV team stuck to its position that there’ll be no representation, unless the government was willing to hold the ban then and there.
Finally, the government blinked. Sources say, Venkaiah Naidu made a marginal note on NDTV’s representation and signed it. NDTV still didn’t budge till it was handed over an official letter. This, too, was done by the ministry officials within an hour.
The government had clearly lost face and NDTV had scored a major victory, not only for itself, but for media freedom. Venkaiah Naidu tried to salvage some of it by tweeting that “in sync with the Government’s liberal democratic ethos” the ban had been put on hold. But, by then, the game had been lost. Social Media erupted with jubilation at NDTV’s victory, while the right-wing fumed and abused Venkaiah Naidu for being spineless.
A few months ago, such an action on NDTV, might have gone unnoticed. Media organisations would, most likely, have stood back and not dared to mess with the government. The organized right-wing on social media would have campaigned hard against NDTV and its anchors. But, today, things have changed. Surgical strikes, sabre-rattling, nationalism might have great emotional appeal, but if people don’t have jobs, if food prices keep going up, if industry keeps contracting, if commercial transactions come to a standstill, rallying a people behind the government becomes a difficult job.
If journalists are good at anything, they are great at sensing which way the wind is blowing. It is this sense that has brought mainstream media houses and top journalists out of their closets in support of NDTV. More than a commitment to the freedom of the press, it is a sense that the political tide is beginning to turn.
This is exactly what happened to the UPA, almost five years ago, when an old man from Maharashtra and an ex-IRS officer sat on dharna at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to demand for a Lokpal. The rest is history.