Emergency is long over Mr Modi, don't impose a new one
The PM’s critics are happiest as the government tries to shoot the messenger, living up to the notion that he is intolerant of dissent.
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For a prime minister who claims he doesn’t care what the mainstream media says about him, his government seems obsessed with trying to control the media narrative. If the party’s media managers were to have their way, TV channels would lift material put out on Twitter and Facebook by the government’s information officers and faithfully reproduce their propaganda on prime time TV. The latest round of show cause notices sent by the ministry of information and broadcasting to three news channels is a crude attempt to browbeat the media to fall in line with the government’s diktats.
Let’s take the notice issued to NDTV as an example. The government raised serious objections over comments made by Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Majid Memon. Memon is quoted in the notice as having said, “Usmaan Jaan Khan is an approver in this case, who is (prosecution witness) PW 2 in the trial. Now (that) this Usmann Jaan Khan has been pardoned, if you show this pardon to any person outside India, UK or US authorities or the best brains in the world as far as criminal law is concerned, they will laugh at you. They’ll say is this justice? Usmaan Jaan Khan has played a role in this whole operation ten times more than Yakub; he’s pardoned (Usmaan Jaan Khan)... But I should not be misunderstood because I’m not holding Yakub’s brief, nor am I finding, criticising the findings of the highest court to which I must bow down. And I say that I salute the Supreme Court for having at least afforded to him even the last opportunity at 3am.”
The government’s show cause notice gives 15 days to the news channels to act and threatens to invoke the stringent provisions of Section 20 of the Cable Act, which allows the government to "prohibit the operation of a cable TV network". The show cause notice ominously states, “Whereas it has been observed that NDTV 24X7 allowed transmission of such content, which not only questioned the judicial system of India but tended to denigrate the very institution by hinting that it was not at par with the judicial systems existing in the UK and US.”
As a prominent lawyer, politician and a citizen, Memon has the right to criticise the Supreme Court’s ruling. The law of the land allows him to critique any judgment as long as he does not cast aspersions on the motives of the judges. In his statement, Memon does not question the motives of the Supreme Court judges. The government, therefore, has no business taking offence on behalf of the judiciary. Memon even praises the judges for having heard Yakub’s plea in the early hours of the morning and for giving the death row convict every opportunity to plead his case. It is absurd for the government to suggest that this comment carried by NDTV constitutes grounds to take stringent action against the news channel.
What is intriguing is that show cause notices have been served to three channels that have been relatively objective in their coverage of the Modi government’s performance. Channels like India TV, that have been acting as propaganda vehicles for the BJP, have not been issued show cause notices despite the fact that they too carried the same interview with Chota Shakeel, which the government seems so outraged by. Not only are charges that are being levelled absurd, they are also being levelled in a biased manner.
In response to the widespread criticism of the show cause notices issued by the information and broadcasting ministry, the government has now put out an explanatory note which states, "The result of this reportage has been that a large number of well meaning members of the community to which Yakub Memon belonged have started feeling that he was a victim. It is for these reasons that Mumbai was tense on the date of his burial and thousands of people turned up for his burial." I was at the Bada Kabristan in Mumbai on the day of Yakub’s funeral. A bureaucrat in Shastri Bhawan cannot dictate how people should feel about an execution. It is true that thousands turned up in solidarity with Yakub. But I didn’t hear anyone criticise the fact that a terrorist had been executed. What seemed to irk the young crowd a lot more was that other death row convicts, who enjoyed political backing, had escaped the noose.
Because of pressure from Akali Dal politicians, late chief minister Beant Singh’s assassin, Balwant Singh Rajoana, has so far been able to escape the hangman’s noose. What the government ought to do is to impress upon the Badals the need to stop delaying Rajoana’s execution. Action on this front by the Modi government, rather than coming down heavily on news channels, will do a lot more to assuage the concerns of the Muslim minority and maybe next time fewer people will feel the need to congregate at a terrorist’s funeral.
The government has invoked provisions of the Programme and Advertising Code of the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994. Rule 6 of the programme code is so vague and overarching that the government can yank any channel off the air on the flimsiest pretext. Among other things, the code states, “No programme should be carried which offends good taste or decency, contains criticism of friendly countries; promotes anti-national attitudes; affects the integrity of the nation; criticises, maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country.”
The programme code is so ridiculous that it gives government officials the right to order a news channel off the air even if it were to criticise a deal struck by the government with another country. Words like "good taste", "decency", "criticise" and "malign" are notoriously difficult to define as shown by the debate over the abolition of Section 66-A of the Information Technology Act. Fortunately, no government so far has tried to implement the programme code literally and the draconian provisions of the law have rarely been invoked in the last 20 years.
This is not to suggest that news channels are infallible and that they should be allowed to act as extra constitutional authorities. In a 24x7 news cycle, where decisions are taken in a flash, reporters, producers and editors can and do make mistakes. Channels and editors must be reprimanded for these mistakes so that it serves as deterrence in the future. But the person sitting on judgement on the content carried by a news channel cannot be a sarkari babu. In the interest of fair play it must be an independent judge who has no stake in the governance architecture. Often a babu's boss is the one who would be the aggrieved party. A subordinate whose future depends on what his political boss thinks of his work, cannot be expected to be unbiased in adjudicating on a channel's content.
If the government was incensed by the coverage given by news channels to Yakub’s execution, the information and broadcasting ministry should have forwarded a complaint to the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), an independent self regulatory ombudsman set up by the News Broadcasters Association. The NBSA was set up under the late Chief Justice JS Verma and is currently headed by the honourable Justice KV Raveendran. In the past, on several occasions, under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the information and broadcasting ministry had forwarded complaints that it had received to the NBSA. I served as an editorial member in the NBSA for three years and witnessed many cases in which the NBSA passed orders against erring news channels.
NBSA members, as a rule, are people with eminent intellectual standing and a distinguished record in public service. Currently, former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi, economist Nitin Desai, former deputy national security advisor (NSA) Leela Ponnappa and former DG of Doordarshan Vijaylakshmi Chhabra are members of the NBSA. They are aided in their efforts by senior news editors, who provide members with an insider's perspective on the running of news channels. I saw for myself how editors would keep aside their professional differences and work unfailingly to uphold the NBSA’s code of ethics.
It can be argued that there is a need to strengthen the penal provisions of the NBSA and to bring all news channels under its ambit. Currently, membership of the NBSA is entirely voluntary and several regional channels and a few national channels are not members. Some channels like Zee News withdrew from the self-regulatory body after orders were passed against them. What the government should do is to make it compulsory for all news channels to undertake to abide by the NBSA code of ethics and broadcasting standards and to make it necessary for all members to comply with the orders of the NBSA.
The current information and broadcasting minister, Arun Jaitley, is a product of the Emergency and has often waxed eloquent about the virtues of self-regulation. He has also spoken out against attempts by previous governments to muzzle free speech. Now is his chance to walk the talk.
Strengthen self-regulation in the media, enhance the penal provisions of the NBSA, make it mandatory for channels to follow NBSA orders and stop trying to play judge and jury.
LK Advani criticised the conduct of journalists during the Emergency. He felt they started to crawl when they were asked to bend. Through its ham-handed show cause notices, the government is asking news channels to bend. What the prime minister should realise is that the Emergency is long over. And the current generation of TV editors and journalists will neither crawl nor bend.