Indian Government under Fire for Blocking Channels

Akash Vashishtha
2016.11.07
New Delhi
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161107-IN-press-freedom-620.jpg Senior Indian journalists protest the government's decision to impose a 24-hour ban on two news channels in New Delhi, India, Nov. 7, 2016.
Akash Vashishtha/BenarNews

Facing widespread criticism for imposing a 24-hour ban on two television news channels that aired sensitive information, the Indian government on Monday put on hold its decision to block at least one of those stations, an official said.

The decision by the government to put on hold its blockage of news channel NDTV India came after officials from the station appealed to the country’s Supreme Court to challenge the legitimacy of the ban in the world’s largest democracy.

The ban on NDTV India and Assamese news channel News Time Assam was to go into effect at midnight Wednesday.

Confirming the hold-back of the ban on NDTV India, Chaitanya Prasad, spokesman for the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, told BenarNews that the decision was taken after NDTV’s chairman Prannoy Roy met with Information Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu on Monday.

“Prannoy Roy had an hour-long meeting with the minister. [Roy] asked the minister to put the execution of the order on hold,” Prasad said.

“The minister said that in the interest of democracy and the interest of larger freedom of press, the ban would be put on hold until the appeal [by NDTV] is heard by the Supreme Court. The minister said that the action was not directed against any one particular channel, but in the interest of national security, which is of paramount importance,” he added.

Prasad, however, did not confirm if the ban’s rollback was extended to News Time Assam, which was ordered to go off air for an entire day as a penalty for revealing the identity of an underage domestic servant who had been tortured and for airing gruesome visuals of dead bodies in another program.

The ministry had announced last week that it had ordered NDTV India to go off air for a day for allegedly revealing “strategically sensitive” details during the channel’s live coverage of the attack on the Pathankot Air Force Station in Punjab in January.

The government said that NDTV India revealed details about the ammunition and equipment stockpiled in the air base as well as the number of Indian soldiers involved in the counter-terror operation. That information could have been used by the attackers to their advantage.

‘A very dangerous precedent’

NDTV India denied this charge, saying it did not air anything that was not already available elsewhere.

“All that we showed was already available in the public domain one day before. We did not compromise the national security. We will tell the court all the facts,” Ravish Kumar, the channel’s executive editor, told BenarNews.

The ban on NDTV India, a popular news channel, sparked widespread protests by Indian journalists who gathered at press clubs across the country on Monday to slam the move by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which frequently has been accused of stifling dissent.

“The decision to take the channel off the air for a day is a direct violation of the freedom of the media and therefore the citizens of India and amounts to harsh censorship imposed by the government reminiscent of the emergency,” the Editors Guild of India said in a statement released to the press.

“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,” it said.

The 24-hour prohibition on NDTV India and News Time Assam follows a complete ban on Oct. 2 against Kashmir Reader, a daily newspaper based in the Kashmir region, for allegedly inciting violence.

“It is a very dangerous precedent. If the government has a problem with some coverage it should approach the court or give some warning. A ban should be the last resort,” S.K. Pande, president of the Delhi Union of Journalists, told BenarNews.

India Today consulting editor Rajdeep Sardesai said the country’s News Broadcasting Standard’s Authority (NBSA) should be given more power to regulate news channels.

“The government should strengthen the NBSA. It should be made an independent, statutory body to look into the complaints against television channels and regulate them. It there is anything in the name of national security, let the self-regulatory body decide whether or not it’s a threat to national security,” Sardesai told BenarNews.

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