The Information and Broadcasting ministry has put on hold its order to take NDTV India off air for 24 hours. Champions of media freedom are celebrating but we need to understand that the order, a punitive action for allegedly broadcasting “strategically sensitive details” during the coverage of the militant attack on Pathankot Air Force base, has not been revoked but just put on hold.
The victory is not yet complete – it may not even be a victory yet.
The issue revolves around whether the channel did actually reveal sensitive information that was helpful to the Pak-backed terrorists.
The channel in its response to the government does not fully deny that charge. Instead it says the coverage was balanced and that other channels also reported the same information.
In its response to I&B ministry, NDTV India has specifically mentioned the channels and newspapers that revealed the same information or some channels which have revealed even more. NDTV also pointed out that the location of the terrorists inside the air base was made public by the army in a press briefing.
Now here comes the twist: if all channels aired more or less the same information, then why is NDTV India being singled out for punishment? Why has the government decided not to punish the other media outlets, or for that matter the army officers who gave out such sensitive information? Is it because, as some allege, NDTV and its Hindi arm NDTV India have been asking a lot of tough questions to those in power?
There are no clear answers from the government on this. And that is what is disturbing about the whole issue: it looks like the government is sending out a clear message to the media that it is willing to use the law to muzzle free voices, and that too selectively.
The good news is government seems to have got more than what it had bargained for.
The Editor Guild, the Press Club of India, the Women’s Press Corps, the Mumbai Press Club, the Foreign Correspondents Club of South Asia and almost every other journalist organization have opposed what they see as a “draconian” step, reminiscent of the Emergency days. Several media houses have also opposed the move, as they realize that silence at this time when a rival is suffering, would actually clear the way for the same punitive actions to be used to target them in the future.
It is true that self regulation by media has failed on several occasions. But the solution to it cannot be to allow the government to appoint itself as a media regulator. If it happens, then the media in the world’s largest democracy will be no different from the media in, say, North Korea.
If any media outlet breaks the established rules for broadcasting or publishing, then it should be punished. But the punishment cannot be arbitrarily decided by the government. An independent body, or perhaps one of the higher courts, should hear both sides out and give a verdict.
The government cannot be both the complainant and judge in a case against the media – or for that matter in any issue. That militates against the Rule of Law.
(The views expressed are personal)