The order of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, directing that Hindi television channel NDTV India be taken off air for 24 hours on November 9, is a serious violation of media freedom.
Why was the suspension undertaken?
The decision arises from the telecast of developments relating to the terrorist attack on the Pathankot Air Force base in January. The news channel is accused of airing sensitive information that compromised the safety of military personnel and civilians even as operations were on to neutralise the attack.
According to the inter-ministerial committee that inquired into the charge, the disclosure of details relating to the location of the ammunitions depot, the range of weapons and military assets available there and the presence of civilian residences in the vicinity could have been used by terrorists to their advantage.
NDTV’s response /defence presented
The broadcaster’s defence was that nothing was disclosed that was not published or aired by other media outlets, that its reportage was largely based on official briefings and that it was done in a responsible manner.
Ever since media coverage of the terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 created a controversy, it has been accepted that there is a need for restrained and responsible coverage of anti-terrorism operations and potential hostage situations.
Regulatory Options for news Channels
The News Broadcasting Standards Authority, set up by the News Broadcasters Association, came up with a set of rules. The Ministry could have either approached the authority, which is headed by a former Supreme Court judge, or formed an independent panel to adjudicate the question.
Instead, it has invoked a rule introduced in June 2015 that imposes a blanket ban on all live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation until it ends. It has cited statutory provisions that empower the government to regulate or prohibit the transmission of TV programmes.
What Should have been done?
There is no mention of any provision for appeal. None can reasonably argue that irresponsible live coverage of an ongoing operation should attract no penalty. A problem arises when the penalty is decided by a government panel. Taking a channel off air for however brief a period is a serious decision that could be read as a signal to other newsrooms to self-censor. A committee of officials is not the ideal body to make an independent assessment of what constitutes information that poses an imminent danger to military personnel or civilians. That is the job of an independent forum.