NDTV India blackout: A case of government overreach

The one good outcome of the current controversy has been the realization of the sweeping powers that the government holds

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The ministry of information and broadcasting has ordered a 24-hour blackout of NDTV India, a Hindi news channel, on the recommendation of an inter-ministerial committee. The committee found that NDTV India revealed “strategically-sensitive information” in covering the Pathankot anti-terrorism operation in January. NDTV has argued that it was not alone in disclosing the information for which it is being penalized, and that other media outlets had done so before it had. But the veracity of claims on either side—the inter-ministerial committee or NDTV—is not the primary concern here. It does not even matter that much of what NDTV revealed could have been easily found on the Internet. What matters is whether the government should have the power to take such punitive action against media houses.

Last year, the government had introduced an extra clause— 6(1)p—to the Programme Code of the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994. This clause prohibits live coverage of anti-terrorism operations and restricts media coverage to periodic briefings by a designated officer. Any violation of the code allows the government to order a channel to go off air for a period of time. The action against NDTV India marks the first time the new clause has been used to punish a TV network. A number of similar actions have, however, been taken against entertainment channels—and occasionally, news channels—for deemed violations of other clauses of the Programme Code.

The one good outcome of the current controversy has been the realization of the sweeping powers that the government of the day holds. Ideally, such powers should be in the hands of a quasi-judicial body independent of the government. If NDTV decides to challenge the government order in the courts, the least that could be expected is a set of guidelines that narrow the interpretative powers of the government. If the government is allowed to go unchallenged, it may create a dangerous precedent for overuse and misuse of such provisions in the future.

However, there is a larger point to be made regarding media coverage of terror attacks in particular and terrorism in general. The coverage of military operations has always been a tricky terrain. But the advent of the hyper-information age in combination with asymmetric warfare’s growing footprint has added immensely to the challenges.

As the weaker party in asymmetric warfare, terrorist organizations will always seek to manipulate the media to extract more information that can be used against their powerful adversary. 26/11 is the best example. The terrorists in Mumbai were being regularly briefed about the operational deployments of the Indian security forces by their handlers in Pakistan, who in turn sourced their information from the live coverage of several TV networks. Global media houses like CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera have learnt this lesson; they remain at a respectful distance from the theatre of operation. Even Indian TV networks now delay their coverage.

The challenges of covering terrorism are not restricted to terrorist attacks alone. The media has to be careful so as not to be used by terrorists for furthering their agenda. Terrorism expert Brian Jenkins observed decades ago: “Terrorism is theatre”. And media loves theatre. How much of the theatre—macabre as it is—of the Islamic State’s videos can then be played on TV without helping their cause? There is no definite answer. On the one hand, their videos—in the words of journalist Jason Burke—“serve a dual purpose, inspiring one group of people while disgusting and frightening another”. On the other, if one TV channel doesn’t show them, another still may. And the videos will certainly be available on the Internet.

A new debate touching on these issues has emerged in France, which has suffered numerous terrorist attacks in the last couple of years. Le Monde has decided not to publish photographs of perpetrators of terrorist attacks to rob them of their “posthumous glorification”. Conversely, France Télévisions believes its duty is to inform the citizens and not keep names and photographs from them. These debates are new and complex. Governments, especially in liberal democracies, should avoid brute-force solutions.

Coming back to India, the NDTV ban has been used to criticize the Narendra Modi government, and justifiably so. But some critics have unfairly invoked “fascism” and “emergency” from the very next day after this government took office. The government too, it must be said, has been incrementally moving closer to realizing the worst accusations against it. The NDTV blackout notwithstanding, this is still not the emergency. Nevertheless, the government would do well to roll back the penalty and introduce legislation to create an autonomous quasi-judicial body to adjudicate on such matters. The slogan of “minimum government, maximum governance” cannot be applied selectively.

Indian media should also strive to improve the quality of its self-regulatory institutions and frame better guidelines to deal with conflict coverage.

Is the government’s decision to ban NDTV India for a day justified? Tell us at views@livemint.com