- NL Sena
The Malayalam news channels were briefly taken off air Friday night for reporting on Delhi’s communal carnage and being ‘critical of RSS’.
“Our basic thought process is that press freedom is absolutely essential for a democratic setup,” said , not long after his Information and Broadcasting Ministry took two Malayalam news channels off air for reporting on Delhi’s communal carnage. “That’s the commitment of the Modi government.”
On March 6, Asianet News and Media One were prohibited from telecasting for 48 hours for allegedly misreporting the violence in Delhi late last month and, in the case of , being “critical towards Delhi police and RSS”. The ban was, however, lifted by early next morning.
Interestingly, Asianet News is owned by Jupiter Capital, founded by Rajiv Chandrasekhar, a BJP member of the Rajya Sabha.
Speaking to reporters in Pune on Saturday, Javadekar said, “Two Kerala channels were banned for 48 hours. We immediately found out what had actually happened and restored the channels.” He, however, didn’t specify “what had actually happened”.
The two news channels were taken off the air at 7.30 pm on March 6 and ordered not to resume telecast until 7.30 pm on March 8. However, Asianet News was back on air at around 1.30 am on Saturday; Media One followed suit at around 9:40 am on Saturday.
The ban and its revocation within hours raises many questions, especially as the Modi government is known to keep a close watch on what TV channels show. In November 2016, the I&B ministry had ordered NDTV off air for a day for allegedly divulging “strategically sensitive” details while covering the attack on the Pathankot airbase early that year. It is, thus, hard to believe the ministry’s claim that it made a “mistake” in banning the Malayalam TV channels despite getting replies to the showcause notices it had issued to them. The notices had been sent on February 28.
‘A way of scaring the media’
Sindhu Sooryakumar, chief coordinating editor of Asianet News, declined to comment on the ban and its revocation. PR Sunil, the channel’s chief reporter who covered the communal violence from Ashok Nagar and Jaffrabad in Delhi, told Newslaundry, “I have only done my job and I will continue to do my job. I don’t want to comment further on the matter at this moment.”
Speaking to Newslaundry, A Rasheedudheen, political editor at Media One, said the ban was an attempt to scare the media. “They chose to issue these orders to two channels in a bid to rein in the media as a whole. The same news was reported by channels in other languages as well. Maybe more channels will be issued similar notices,” he said, adding, “I don’t feel Media One will change the angle of its reporting because this happened. So far, we have adhered to the most ethical forms of journalism.”
KS Dakshin Murthy, associate editor at the Federal, argued that taking TV channels off air is a tactic used by the government to suppress critical voices and ensure that others fall in line. He added that the efficacy of the “scare tactic” will depend on how the managements of media houses react but it brings “bad news for the media”.
He pointed out that the ban on the Malayalam channels came at a time when the media, like the society, is massively polarised. “Experienced journalists and media managements should realise that if there is a divide then all the sides of the media will lose out eventually,” he said.
Aditya Sinha, editor of Deccan Chronicle, told Newslaundry that the ban was without doubt a tactic used by the government to suppress the media. He added that anyone who hasn’t succumbed to the Hindutva agenda would understand this.
He noted that national TV channels like Republic TV spew venom against Muslims but it is news channels that question the Hindutva agenda which are banned. “Everybody will be scared after this incident. It is not just the journalists but their owners as well who have no spine. The media owners have no brains and they just want to make money,” he said. “So, they are the ones who will make journalists shy away from such stories. Journalists are caught between the government and these owners."
Meanwhile, the Chennai Press Club has condemned the ban on Asianet News and Media One, describing it as a “direct attack” on press freedom.
“The Chennai Press Club strongly condemns the unprecedented decision of the Union Ministry for Information and Broadcasting imposing a 48-hour ban on two Malayalam channels, Asianet News and Media One, for allegedly violating the provisions of Cable Television Networks Rule of 1994 during their reportage of the deadly riots that broke out in North East Delhi a few days back,” read a note issued by the club.
Several political leaders also denounced the ban as an “infringement on media freedom”. “The move banning the broadcast of Media One and Asianet News channels by the I&B ministry is worse than the situation during the Emergency,” said Kanam Rajendran, Kerala secretary of the Communist Party of India.
Kerala’s opposition leader, Ramesh Chennithala of the Congress, urged the public to protest against the ban. “The BJP government is trying to chain the news channels which brought out the real stories of the Delhi riots,” he said.
With inputs from Kapil Kajal.
Deepu Aby Varghese is a freelance writer in Thiruvananthapuram and member of , a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.