“Today morning I got anSMS from a channel. So many festivals went away, but no one SMSed me. But suddenly today morning I got an SMS from a channel. I told them that I don’t watch their channel. And a year back I had taken a journalist from the same channel in my helicopter. He had been pursuing me for an interview for long. He was with me all day in the helicopter. I also thought that it always helps to have journalists along so that they extend our message to the common people. My people kept waiting for the interview to be aired on the channel. It was never shown. Why? When we inquired, we were told that the Marketing and Sales department hasn’t allowed the airing of the interview.”
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav made this statement at a press conference on January 10, 2014. At the same press conference, Yadav lashed out at another media organisation for stating that the expenditure incurred by the Uttar Pradesh government on the Saifai Mahotsav was Rs 300 crore. He also added -“People from the newspaper have been Members of Parliament from Rajya Sabha nominated by SP. We couldn’t give him a ticket this time. They should apologise for publishing a false story or prove from where they got the figure of Rs300 crore.”
That Yadav is not amused by the criticism of the Saifai Mahotsav across media outlets was obvious at his press conference. He also made it clear that he thinks that the media exists to “extend his message to the common people” and that giving Rajya Sabha tickets to media persons insulates him from criticism from the same quarters.
The Managing Editor of India News,Yashwant Rana realised just how unamused Yadav was when he received a call from his Bureau Chief in UP at 9pm that night. His Bureau Chief was calling to inform him that India News and Times Now had been blacked out in several cities and towns of the state.
Why? According to Rana, the UP government is indulging in more than a spot of vendetta. “We have been running a campaign against the Akhilesh Yadav government at different places in UP. In Faizabad we had aired a report on riot victims spending the night at the railway station. The MLA Pawan Pandey, as we are told, ordered the cable operators to blackout India News from there. Similarly, we have been running the story of the SP government’s cover-up of the Firozabad gangrape case in which Dalbir Singh, husband of an influential SP leader from the district is the main accused. We have also been covering a story on a rape case in Bijnaur which had the involvement of a SP leader. Since we have been exposing the misdeeds of SP leaders, they have banned us in Lucknow, Faizabad, Firozabad, Allahabad and many other cities. This is complete gundaraaj.”
Times Now is the other channel that was banned in several parts of Uttar Pradesh. The channel has been following the UP legislators’ multi-nation junket and has been persistently debating the issue on their primetime debates. As reported by The Times Of India, Arnab Goswami, Editor-in-Chief of Times Now, said, “I have received reports that Times Now has gone off air across several parts of UP, including Lucknow and Ghaziabad. The cable operators have not given any specific reason for the blackout. We have also asked the Akhilesh Yadav government to investigate the reason behind the sudden and unexpected blackout”. The ban has been lifted on Times Now after 36 hours. The president of the Cable Service Consumer Protection Committee Ambika Prasad Ojha was quoted as saying -“The telecast of Times Now and India News has been stopped across UP because the CM got offended by their negative coverage of the Saifai Mahotsav”.
Rana adds that when their reporter sought an explanation from the Samajwadi Party on the two channels being banned, UP Minister Shivpal Yadav said that the media should desist from showing false news. The SP spokesperson Ravidas Mehrotra had assured Rana that both the regional and national channels of India News would be back on air on the night of January 12. However, the ban still continues.
While the political motivation behind the blackouts seems quiet apparent, no official order calling for a ban on the channels has been sent out by the state government. In 2007, Gujarat witnessed a similar blacking out of several news channels moments after channels started beaming a sting operation by Tehelka accusing Chief Minister Narendra Modi of inciting the 2002 Gujarat riots. While this was a blow to press freedom and an anti-democratic move, the channels were banned only after an official order issued by the Ahmedabad District Magistrate and District Election Officer Dhananjay Dwivedi. The order said, “From 19:30 hours (IST), onwards, dated 25.10.07, there are programmes like Tehelka-Aaj Tak Khulasa, Operation Kalank and Gujarat kaSach being telecast on AajTak and IBN7 depicting visuals and statements of people pertaining to the 2002 communal riots. As per Clause 5 of the Cable TV Network Regulation Act, 1995, no entity can broadcast or re-broadcast any programme, which is not as per programming code.”
According to Clause 19 and Clause 20 of the Cable Act, “an officer, not below the rank Of a Group A officer of the Central Government authorised by the State Government in this behalf, thinks it necessary or expedient so to do in the public interest, he may, by order, prohibit any cable operator from transmitting or re-transmitting any particular programme if it is likely to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill- will between different religious, racial, linguistic or regional groups or castes or communities or which is likely to disturb the public tranquility”.
However, there was no such official notification on part of the UP government or the local administration. We contacted the Director of Information and Public Affairs,Prabhat Mittal but received no response from him.
Since there was no official ban on Times Now and India News, it wasn’t possible to stop the telecast of these channels by Direct-To-Home service providers. What was possible was to impose the ban in those households who have cable connections.It is only where middlemen like cable operators are present that local politicians have been able to manipulate them to block these channels.
Going by the removal of the ban on Times Now within 36 hours, it seems that the channels which were blacked out by the UP government have reacted in a manner which the government might not have expected. Instead of seeming repentant, both channels stepped up their reportageon the UP government and repeatedly aired the news that they had been blacked out. They have also been showing visuals of police lathi-charging and slapping female protesters in Firozabad. The Akhilesh Yadav government’s attempt to muzzle the media has only ended up in giving the media even more reasons to criticise them. With good reason.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org