Although the Centre has lifted a temporary ban on two Malayalam TV channels, Asianet News and Media One, sooner than expected, the orders of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry on late March 6 enforcing a 48-hour ban on them bring to the fore the propensity for abuse of power and sheer arbitrariness in the decision, as evident from the ministry’s own overstated accusations against these media groups and from Prakash Javadekar’s statements on March 7.
Following the I&B order that, strangely, do not highlight any gross misreporting, both TV channels went off air over their coverage of the Delhi riots at 7.30pm on March 6. The ban on Asianet News was lifted at 1.30am and that of Media One at 9.30am on March 7. Asianet News, which, interestingly, is owned by BJP lawmaker Rajeev Chandrasekhar, was charged by the ministry with reporting on North-East Delhi violence “in a manner which highlighted the attack on places of worship and siding towards a particular community”. The order by the ministry added that the news telecast by Asianet News on February 25 “appeared to violate” various provisions of the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994. After hearing the channel’s version over its reporting in which it denied all allegations of impropriety, the ministry went into a conclusion that the channel should have taken utmost care and should have reported it in a balanced way. “Such reporting could enhance the communal disharmony across the country when the situation is highly volatile,” the order added.
As viewers of Asianet News and of the news reports aired by the TV channel on February 25 would have seen, the channel blamed the Delhi Police for not doing enough to control the riots and for not being present in many areas where violence broke; it also said that the mobs chanted “Jai Shri Ram” and forced others to chant after them; the 10-minute telecast in question also said that Muslims were assaulted by mobs. The Asianet News’ reporter PR Sunil had said that he was asked to reveal his religious identity by the mobs before he proceeded with reporting. To Open, he said, “I was reporting what I saw. I just did my duty as a journalist to report what I saw unfold before me. I will continue to do it because it is not my job to be a propagandist, but to be a journalist.”
Interestingly, after the government went in for a premature lift of the ban, ANI tweeted a comment from I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar which smacked of apparent guilt: “Two Kerala dailies (sic) were banned for 48 hours, we immediately found out what actually happened and therefore immediately we restored the channels. Our basic thought process is that press freedom is absolutely essential for a democratic setup.”
What exactly did he find out that forced him to revoke the ban? If there was no finality to their judgement of the day before, why was there a rush to go ahead with it? Were there others who goaded the ministry to take this drastic step? By yielding to do so, did the government find itself at its wits’ end? Or did any of these two TV channels offer any unconditional apology? These questions linger.
Speaking to Open, MG Radhakrishnan, chief editor of Asianet News, would only say, “I&B ministry withdrew it (the 48-hour original ban) after the management spoke to them.”
As with Media One, the ministry found fault with a phone-in on February 25 by its Delhi correspondent Hassan ul Banna (as part of a 30-minute telecast) who said that vandals fired at anti-CAA protesters from a rooftop in North East Delhi and that five of them were injured. The channel was accused of stating that the vandals and the police were hand-in-glove with each other. The TV channel, the ministry complained, also attributed the cold-shouldered approach of the government for the ongoing protests in the national capital. The channel also earned the ministry’s wrath for stating that a provocative speech by a BJP leader led to the riots. The Centre found it unacceptable that the channel said Delhi Police failed to file FIRs for hate speech. The ministry, again, found that such reporting would enhance communal disharmony across the country.
Most importantly, nowhere did the ministry state or imply that the reporting by either of the channels was factually inaccurate. Neither can they be accused of breaking the barriers of restraint at a time when political leaders in positions of power were busy making comments with impunity to drive a wedge between communities. India has been wracked by communal tensions for the past many months over a new Citizenship law that protestors claim discriminates against Muslims. The country has been buffeted by a proliferation of fake news through WhatsApp and other forms of social media including Twitter and Facebook, which blurs the lines between truth and falsehood for the common news consumer. In such a scenario, broadcast media has greater responsibility to report the facts. Several news channels, however, have been accused of partisan coverage and even peddling fake news that benefits certain political interests. No action has been taken against them despite mounting evidence of their skewed reporting.
Javadekar, meanwhile, was quoted by ANI in its tweet as adding, to his earlier statement on March 7, “And that is commitment of Modi Govt as we fought emergency in which press freedom was muzzled. So, even PM expressed concern on this issue. I will go into details & take essential steps if any wrongdoing. Also, everybody accepts it has to be responsible freedom (sic).”
Correspondents of both TV channels that Open spoke to allege that there is often constant meddling in their affairs, especially on reports on governance, special shows and even entertainment programmes, by ruling party politicians. Even so, this action by the government comes as a rude shock for most of them, as it does for the rest of the country.