In 2015, a certain TV news channel was in the news for violating the law which allegedly prohibits live coverage of terror attacks/anti-terrorist operations.
As per a news report, this channel covered the anti-terrorist operation in Gurdaspur live for three to five minutes. The name of this channel is Doordarshan.
What happened after this violation was noticed?
Per the news report, two things seem to have happened.
- “Officers were pulled up”.
- The channel was asked to desist from continuing coverage of the incident. To the best of my knowledge, the channel – owned and run by the government itself – suffered no other sanctions. No notices, no black outs, nothing.
In fact, as far as the Gurdaspur attacks are concerned, an advisory issued by the Government of India suggests that there was more than one channel which violated the law regulating live coverage. There is no information available on any action taken against any of them.
- Doordarshan covered the anti-terrorist operation in Gurdaspur live for a few minutes and no concrete action was taken.
- NDTV’s rebuttal to I&B Ministry said the information was already out in the public domain and was covered by other channels too.
- The government’s rules for TV Channels are bizarre and unconstitutional for being overly broad and ambiguous.
- It is critical to ensure that no sensitive information is leaked, but as the provision stands today, it is doing more harm than good.
- If other channels shared similar information, then singling out NDTV India gives rise to the suspicion that one channel is being targeted.
NDTV India, however, for reasons best known to the authorities, was not so lucky.
In January 2016, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry issued a show cause notice alleging that while the attack in Pathankot was on, a reporter with NDTV India had revealed sensitive information on television pertaining to the location of defence assets such as airplanes.
NDTV’s Rebuttal Against the Accusations
In its response, NDTV has reportedly made three points.
Govt’s Code for TV News Channels Is Bizarre
This show cause notice was issued by the government under Rule 6 (I)(p) of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994.
The Programme Code [Rule 6 (I)(p)] reads:
No programme should be carried in the cable service which contains live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces, wherein media coverage shall be restricted to periodic briefing by an officer designated by the appropriate Government, till such operation concludes.
This clause ‘p’ was introduced as an amendment in March 2015. This entire program code is bizarre and unconstitutional, inter alia, for being overly broad and ambiguous.
If this program code was enforced to the letter all TV channels would shut down and the only thing capable of being shown on television would be groups of people doing yoga and chanting bharat mata ki jai.
Take for instance clause 6(I)(a), which prohibits any program which offends ‘good taste and decency’. Whose taste and whose definition of decency?
Or 6 (I) (i), which prohibits any program which ‘criticises, maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country’.
A large part of the laws and regulations governing content on television are archaic and deserve to be struck off the books, but that discussion merits an essay of its own and for the moment I will restrict myself to the latest amendment.
Wording of the Code Is Highly Ambiguous
First, the provision prohibits live coverage of “any” “anti-terrorist” operation. Imagine this – a journalist hears that firing is being exchanged between police/armed forces and rushes to the spot and reports on it. She is later told that this was an anti-terror operation, by which time she has put herself and her channel in the dock.
The point I am making here isn’t that reporters are always incapable of assessing whether an incident is a terrorist attack.
It is that the manner in which the provision is worded is so ambiguous that it will lead to both – a chilling effect on freedom of speech as well as reporters not knowing that they are in the wrong while covering an incident. As always, absolutist positions are harmful here.
If you are one of those people who think that there is no need to know any more about the terrorist operation than the government wants to share, you are grossly mistaken. Governments will always want to suppress all information about the blunders made by them.
A perfect example of this is the Pathankot operation itself – in this article, Ajai Shukla, a retired army officer, describes the painful mishandling of the entire anti-terror ops in Pathankot – a blunder for which no one appears to have been held accountable, no heads rolled.
Which is why the next part of the provision “wherein media coverage shall be restricted to periodic briefing by an officer designated by the appropriate Government” is problematic.
What happens if there is no briefing whatsoever? Can the government be permitted to practically enforce a black out? Coming to the final bit in the provision - “till the operation concludes”.
How is the press to know when the operation has ‘concluded’? Take the case of the Pathankot anti-terror ops – as pointed out by Ajai Shukla, the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and the Defence Minister announced that the anti-terror operation had been “successful”, until they realised on Sunday that the terrorists were still very much active. Even the Prime Minister did not know that the operation had concluded.
It is true that it is critical to ensure that no sensitive information which can be used by terrorists is leaked, but as the provision stands today, it is doing more harm than good.
Why Single Out One News Channel?
Coming back to NDTV’s defence. In response to NDTV’s assertion that several other channels were revealing similar information, the inter-ministerial committee claimed that this cannot be cited as mitigating grounds. Many people are calling this rebuttal an admission of guilt.
Au contraire, NDTV has an extremely valid point. If other channels indeed shared similar information, then singling out NDTV India gives rise to the natural suspicion that one channel is being targeted for reasons that have nothing to do with the facts in question.
The opinion being voiced by some quarters that no action was taken after similar coverage in Gurdaspur because the law was ‘new’, seems ridiculous to me. If that is the case, then ordinary citizens should get a get out of jail card over a grace period every time an act is newly made an offence.
In summary, there is far more grey in the situation than appears at first glance. The fight against terrorism can and should not be an excuse to suspend reason and, more importantly, a much-maligned and endangered principle – freedom of speech. Every attempt by any government to weaken the fourth estate should be viewed with tremendous suspicion.
I’m tempted to quote the character Alan Shore from the TV Show Boston Legal - read it here since who knows what one will be able to watch on television anymore.
“Last night I went to bed with a book, not nearly as much fun as a 29-year-old, but the book contained a speech by Adlai Stevenson. The year was 1952, he said 'The tragedy of our day is the climate of fear in which we live and fear breeds repression. Too often sinister threats to the Bill of Rights, to freedom of the mind, are concealed under the cloak of anti-Communism.' Today, it's the cloak of anti-Terrorism. Stevenson also remarked that it's far easier to fight for principles than to live up to them. I know we are all afraid, but the Bill of Rights, we have to live up to that, we simply must.”
Post Post Script:
Governments across the world suppress freedom bit by bit, until one day it is no longer there. It was done to a newspaper in Kashmir and is now being done to a ‘mainstream’ channel. Don’t fall for it.
(The writer is a lawyer practising in Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)