On Thursday, the Ministry of Information and Broadcast (MIB) issued an order to NDTV India, notifying the channel that it would not be allowed to telecast for 24 hours on November 9,2016. According to the Ministry’s order, the channel had allegedly violated the Programming and Advertising Code by revealing “strategically sensitive” information in its coverage of the Pathankot attacks in January 2016.
This is not the first time NDTV has embraced the blackscreen. When the documentary India’s Daughter was banned by the government in March 2015, the channel displayed a lit candle on air for the duration of the documentary’s running time to register its protest against the ban. Earlier this year, in February, NDTV India played a blank screen with only a voice over by Ravish Kumar lambasting “the prime time debate based method of journalism”. These instances, however, were voluntary. This time, the channel has been gagged and blindfolded.
The MIB has said that NDTV India’s reportage revealed “information on the ammunition stockpiled in the airbase, MIGs, fighter planes, rocket launchers, mortars, helicopters, fuel tanks”, causing a potential threat to national security. They also said that the coverage appeared to “give out the exact location of the remaining terrorists with regard to the sensitive assets in their vicinity”.
The order alleges NDTV India of violating the following provision of the Programme Code under the Cable TV Network Rules, 1995:
Rule 6(1)(p): 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.
NDTV was quick to respond to the order and issued a statement on Thursday evening:
“The order of the MIB has been received. It is shocking that NDTV has been singled out in this manner. Every channel and newspaper had similar coverage. In fact, NDTV’s coverage was particularly balanced. After the dark days of the Emergency when the press was fettered, it is extraordinary that NDTV is being proceeded against in this manner. NDTV is examining all options in this matter.”
Newslaundry contacted NDTV for comment but are yet to receive a reply. This article will be updated if and when we do. As of November 4, all videos of the Pathankot coverage have been taken off the internet by NDTV India. The reports telecast by NDTV, the English channel, remain online. According to sources, the channel will appeal for a stay order. This is the first instance of a channel being targeted after the Programming and Advertising Code was modified in 2015.
The attack on the Army base in Pathankot was headline news and covered by all media. Take a look at ABP NEWS
In his commentary, the ABP News journalist says: “Hum is samay Pathankot air force station ke bahar hai aur aap yeh jo awazein sun rahe hai, ye lagatar helicopter se firing ho rahi hai kuch vishesh sthano par. Ye jo aap ladaku helicopter deke rate hai vayu sena isi helicopter sa lagatar firing ho rahi hai. (We are outside the air force station in Pathankot and these helicopters are firing continuously at certain spots. This is the fighter helicopter of air force that is constantly firing.)”
On Aaj Tak, this was the report.
Titled “Aaj Tak Exclusive”, the commentary clearly reveals that the military operation was going on while the programme was being shot and aired. (00:00- 2:37)
In his piece to camera, reporter Satyendra Chauhan is seen bending and squatting while trying to catch his breath as he talks. We’re shown footage from an area that’s been cordoned off, where police personnel are stationed. All the while, firing goes on behind him in Naushera. The Aaj Tak report also reveals that fighter planes were doing surveillance at night with their visibility lights off.
IBN was no different.
So what did NDTV India report that these channels didn’t? What crucial information did NDTV India reveal? The channel’s move to take the reports offline makes it difficult to ascertain these answers. But looking at the reports from other channels that remain online, it’s clear that they weren’t the only ones to reveal “information on the ammunition stockpiled in the airbase, MIGs, fighter planes, rocket launchers, mortars, helicopters, fuel tanks”, which is one of the charges in the notice from MIB
Speaking to Newslaundry, a source in the Ministry of Defence said that the media certainly needs to take prior permission from the respective authorities while covering any terror attack and has to follow the guidelines laid down by the Ministry of Defence. It’s hard to imagine NDTV India being guilty of such a sophomoric mistake.
On January 29, NDTV had received a show cause notice for their coverage of the Pathankot attack. The channel responded to the MIB on February 5, claiming that it was a matter of “subjective interpretation”. The channel argued that the information given out by their reporter was already out in the public domain in newspapers like the Indian Express (IE) and Times of India (TOI).
On January 3, IE carried a story which read:
“At the IAF base, MIG Bison fighter jets, MI-35 attack helicopters, missiles and other critical assets were secure and the terrorists were prevented from getting near the technical area where the assets were stationed, IAF sources said.”
The MIB order also quotes ToI’s report:
“The airbase houses MiG-21 Bison fighter jets and MI-25 and MI-35 attack helicopters. Besides this, it also has Pechora missile- a surface to air missile – other air defence missiles and surveillance radars.”
Speaking to Newslaundry, a source in the Ministry said that the channel was in violation of a new section in the Programming and Advertising Code (amended in 2015), which laid out guidelines for live reporting during terror attacks. “There are ways of presenting and representing. They [NDTV] have been given ample time to explain, but they say that it is a matter of ‘subjective interpretation’ and are unrepentant about it. IMC [Inter Ministerial Committee] had in fact recommended a 30-day ban but as a token of warning, we have decided to go with a one-day ban. In 2015, we had issued guidelines for live coverage during terror attacks but they are in violation of Programme and advertising code.”
It is imperative to note that several channels have been forced to stop their telecast in the past. There have been instances when the MIB has banned channels, for reasons not-so-unprecedented.
Coincidentally, the 24-hour ban on NDTV came only a day after Prime Minister Modi, in his speech at the Ramnath Goenka Awards’ ceremony, spoke about the days of the Emergency when press freedom was compromised.
The ban on NDTV has been condemned by many. The Editor’s Guild of India was the first, asking that the order be revoked with immediate effect because it was in violation of the freedom of press act. “This first-of-its-kind order to impose a blackout has seen the Central government entrust itself with the power to intervene in the functioning of the media and take arbitrary punitive action as and when it does not agree with the coverage” the statement read. “There are various legal remedies available to both a citizen and a state in the court of law to have action taken for any irresponsible media coverage. Imposing a ban without resorting to judicial intervention or oversight violates the fundamental principles of freedom and justice”, it added. The signatories include Raj Chengappa (President), Prakash Dube (General Secretary) and Seema Mustafa (Treasurer).
The Foundation for Media Professionals, comprising of Manoj Mitta, Saikat Datta, Aniruddha Bahal, Vivian Fernandes and Vipul Mudgan, condemned the ban and also called for a shutdown by other media as a show of solidarity. “While journalists are being jailed for expressing their opinions on social media, media houses are being shut down in the name of maintaining law and order,” read FMP’s statement. “The failures of the arms of the state are being hidden by attacking the messenger. This is unacceptable and must be resisted.”,
Newslaundry spoke to sources in India Today, Times Now and CNN-News18, who at the time of publishing this article were undecided about how they would join the protest. Given November 9 is when the results of the American presidential elections will be announced, it’s a critically important day for media.
It is sadly not the first time that governments have ordered channels off the air, but this is a first instance since the amendment of the Cable TV Rules that the government has ordered a blackout.Why NDTV India has been singled out can only be speculated upon. However, from the fact that the channel is being ordered off air for 24 hours on a day that the world would be watching the news seems to be a warning for all media. Come November 9, we will discover if NDTV will be on its own and if the fourth pillar is really as strong as India needs it to be.
Update:This story has been updated to include new links and information.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @shrutimenon10.