Channels go off, on again in Mumbai

Channels go off, on again in Mumbai

Mumbai: News channels here went off the air for a little more than two hours on Friday after the city’s police department asked cable firms to block channels, and came back on air only after the Union home ministry’s intervention in what is perhaps the first instance of the police using the provisions of a legislation that regulates the cable television business to pull channels off air.

Shortly before noon, Sheela Sail, the deputy commissioner of police (enforcement), Mumbai, sent a letter to some cable operators asking them to block news channels, citing the impact on the people of their coverage of the ongoing terror attacks in the city and claiming that this coverage was also giving terrorists prior information of police action.

The move came after certain news channels ran unconfirmed reports about fresh terror attacks in Mumbai. On Thursday, industry body News Broadcasters Association (NBA) took a stab at self-regulation and said its members, almost all news channels in India, would not air coverage that threatened to impede police action or create panic among the viewers. Annie Joseph, the secretary of NBA, said the body had sent an advisory to this effect late Thursday evening to member channels.

Most cable firms complied with the police directive and news channels went off air in several parts of Mumbai, including central Mumbai where the Mint office is located. When contacted at the time, Ashok Mansukhani, president, Multi Systems Operators Alliance, a trade body representing cable firms, said no news channels had been blacked out.

The home ministry revoked the ban at around 2pm.

Jagjit Kohli, MD and CEO of cable firm Digicable Network (India) Pvt. Ltd, said the directive that forced major operators to take channels off air was reminiscent of the time when cable operators were held liable for movie channels showing adult films.

Raj Nayak, CEO of NDTV Media Ltd, said that most news channels were displaying restraint in coverage and were not airing live operations being conducted by security forces on ground. “Any kind of a blackout of news channels will only give rise to rumours amongst audiences," he added.

That and the fact that the directive sought to curtail freedom of expression would appear to be the reason most broadcasters reacted negatively to the Mumbai police order. Most news channels did not run ads on Friday, and they ran none on Thursday. “Yesterday, most English channels did not go into ad-breaks, and continued with uninterrupted coverage,?which, in?fact,was the right thing to do," said Sam Balsara, chairman and MD of Mumbai-based media agency Madison Communications Pvt. Ltd.

Last year, ad revenues across media in India touched Rs17,356 crore with 8-10% of this amount going to news channels, said a media buyer on condition of anonymity.

A legal expert said freedom of press is not an “absolute" right and that the state could enact laws to impose “reasonable restrictions" on the exercise of the right to freedom of speech and expression. The imposition of Rule 6 of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, to stop the media from relaying information on police operations against terrorist attacks in Mumbai is a “necessary restraint", said senior counsel P.P. Rao. Rule 6 provides a list of restrictions on the nature of the content relayed by cable services.

Another legal expert said he didn’t think self-regulation would work for media. “Waiting for the media to regulate itself has become an endless process. Also, since the recommendations of the Press Commission to add some teeth to the Press Council have not been implemented, it is high time the executive stepped in," said Supreme Court advocate Gopal Sankaranaryanan.

Still, self-regulation is better than arbitrary decisions imposed by others, said Abraham Thomas, COO, Red FM Digital Radio Broadcasting Ltd. “Whether self regulation can work for the media depends on whether the code is real, enforced, uniform and evolved. Also, if everyone abides by it, and there are no ambiguities in the interpretation. In cases where self-regulation has not worked, it could be because there’s something wrong with the code."

Malathi Nayak contributed to this story.