The Information and Broadcasting Ministry's order directing that the Hindi television channel NDTV India be taken off the air for 24 hours commencing November 9, 2016 has come in for much criticism, particularly from the media and the Opposition, who have gone to the extent of suggesting that the move evokes memories of the Emergency.
An objective analysis of the facts of the case, however, reveals that such criticism is quite unfounded and that, in fact, the government would have been remiss had it not imposed such penal action against the channel.
There can be little doubt that the Indian media, and particularly the electronic media, has for long tended to be a law unto itself in projecting news. While such licence may, by and large, be accepted on most issues, it cannot and should not be tolerated on those relating to national security. There have been any number of instances in the past when irresponsible reportage by our TV channels have given the enemy important and often critical tactical information which has cost us lives. Two notable instances which come to mind when this happened was during the Kargil conflict and during the Mumbai attacks. More recently, TV channels have been focusing on the live situation along our borders with Pakistan and providing all manner of details ranging from the shifts observed by the personnel of our border guarding forces to the type of equipment being used by them. It is imperative that our media should act with a sense of greater responsibility and restraint when projecting what they come to know as this could help the enemy. Is it too much to expect that nationalism should trump the desire to make breaking news and to demonstrate prowess as an investigative journalist?
In the instant case, the NDTV channel undertook live coverage of the JeM attack on the Pathankot airbase which took place from 2-5 January in the course of which we took seven casualties and killed six terrorists. The coverage reportedly made a number of disclosures which inter alia included details of the location of the ammunition depot, nature of military assets, location of civilian residences in the vicinity etc as well as of the current state of the operations. Clearly, the coverage was of a piece with past practice and not in the national interest despite innumerable advisories since 26/11 of the need to exercise greater maturity, restraint and sensitivity in such coverage. Furthermore, in June 2015, the Cable TV Network Rules 1994 were amended with inclusion of a provision prohibiting media from carrying programs containing live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation undertaken by security forces and only permitting coverage restricted to briefings by an officer designated by government. Such a provision was eminently desirable in order to keep the media on the straight and narrow in such matters and to avoid the mishaps of the past. Regrettably, NDTV did not heed this guideline and went ahead with its objectionable and irresponsible coverage.
Not only was government legally within its rights in acting against NDTV but it also observed due process of law. On January 29, it served a show cause notice to NDTV for violation of the Cable Act and on July 25 the Channel's representatives were given a personal hearing before an Inter-Ministerial Committee. It was only after these steps and much deliberation that the latter recommended that NDTV India be taken off the air for one day as the disclosure of sensitive information by it in its coverage had several negative ramifications.
Given that government has acted within the law and done what it had to only in the interests of national security, the flood of criticism unleashed against it is strange and quite uncalled for. Certainly those making out that the government's move evokes memories of the Emergency are over the top for what happened then – ranging from mass arrests to forced sterilisations – was nothing short of the establishment of a brutal autocracy which is by no stretch of imagination the case today. To cite just one example, the media has really never been freer than it is today and no Indian Prime Minister has come in for such vitriolic criticism as the present one. Had there been even a lurking dictatorial tendency in the present dispensation such criticism would not have been possible. It would be true to say that we continue to enjoy untrammelled democracy in India and if at all one can justifiably criticise the government it is for being too indulgent towards those who act irresponsibly.
Finally, the NDTV ban order was a much needed step as advisories and rules to exercise restraint while engaging in live coverage of sensitive security operations have rarely been heeded. Such coverages have often been ham- handed exercises in sensationalism and an effort at one upmanship marked by an unfortunate lack of sensitivity to the importance of not giving out anything which could be of use to the enemy. Accordingly, the ban will help discipline the media to exercise greater caution and restraint while undertaking coverage of live security situations. This will serve the nation in good stead in the years to come whenever it is faced with such crisis situations. It goes without saying that during such situations government must provide for frequent media briefings by designated officials so that there is an authoritative projection of the evolving situation and no snippets of information are leaked which could be used against us by the enemy. – Daily News and Analysis