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'Ban on NDTV India is not the answer'

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf
Last updated on: November 07, 2016 21:49 IST
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'If anyone crimps on the media, it automatically begins to impact the freedom of the citizen.'

IMAGE: The ban imposed by the government on NDTV India has been slammed by the Editors Guild and the Broadcast Editors Association among many others. Photograph: Reuters

On November 9, the NDTV India television channel will in all possibility go off the air for 24 hours, according to an order issued by India's information and broadcasting ministry.

An inter-ministerial committee ruled that NDTV India had revealed 'strategically sensitive information' in covering the Pathankot anti-terrorism operation in January.

The television channel has vigorously denied the government's charge, pointing out that it had only reported what government spokespersons had briefed the media about on the military operation directed against the terrorists.

The government decision has been denounced by the Editors Guild of India, which in a statement, termed it a 'direct violation' of the freedom of the press, saying it amounts to 'harsh censorship imposed by the government reminiscent of the Emergency.'

Raj Chengappa, president of the Editors Guild of India, tells Rediff.com's Syed Firdaus Ashraf that the government should not be regulating the media.

How do you view the information and broadcasting ministry's decision to black out NDTV India for a day?

We are extremely unhappy with the decision. A blanket ban is not the answer to the issue.

There is a process, as we all know, under the Indian Penal Code, where you can prosecute journalists and editors.

This includes (cases like) defamation, criminal offence, disturbing communal harmony and violating national security norms.

The second point is there are various bodies that have been set up in the last couple of years wherein any aggrieved party, including the government, could take their complaint to.

In the case of TV channels, you have the standard authorities that has already been set up which has a retired Supreme Court judge, I think with nine other members, who have penalised or chastise the TV channels, though that is not their primary role.

So there is a very competent body (the News Broadcasting Standards Authority).

In the case of the print media, you have the Press Council of India where you can complain about photos and obscenity. Most leading publications do observe their (the Press Council's) judgments and take it seriously.

Let us not forget also that every editor, including me, is subject to either their readers or viewers' opinion.

If the reader or viewer feels the channel is biased or has crossed the limit, they have a right to switch off the channel or stop reading the publication.

In fact, the credibility of an organisation is critical. It takes years to build credibility and if you lose credibility in a day or so, all editors, including me, are deeply concerned about authenticity about maintaining norms and that is a daily process.

Every day, our neck is on the block when we carry an average say 500 pieces in a newspaper or on a Web site or anything on a television channel.

Each of those things is the responsibility of the editor and they are, by the way, Indians.

He (an editor) is not a different element and out of society. He is a part of society and that is very important to understand.

There is responsibility and accountability.

Most organisations have an internal regulation system. So if there is a major complaint, we go into every complaint and take it seriously, the correspondent is questioned and then we take a decision.

So there are many review processes.

The government should be the last agency to be doing any of this.

On July 27, 2015, the information and broadcasting ministry clearly laid down guidelines that media coverage on anti-terrorist operations will be restricted to periodic briefings. Why did NDTV India not heed it?

That matter has to be adjudicated.

The ministry feels they have violated the norms. NDTV feels its coverage was sober and not different from other channels. So why is NDTV being singled out for the treatment? That is the issue.

National security is a serious concern for all of us and it is very important for all editors and journalists to observe the norm that they should not compromise on national security.

There is no doubt in my mind about that. But you can take it from issue to issue. You can say if I criticise the government and they do not like it, then it (the government) can invoke some vague clause to either stop or ban you and therefore the power should not lie on the executive to decide if another pillar of democracy (the Fourth Estate) is right or wrong.

It should be an oversight and that is why the Editors Guild said judicial oversight is probably the best in this circumstance because you have an independent judiciary that is looking at both points of view, rather than the government.

If the government says, 'Look, this channel has violated the norm and gone beyond it,' it should seek recourse.

There are professional bodies set up for self regulation and that is very important, then there is the course of law.

There have been cases where citizens have been charged with sedition. I hope no journalist will be charged on this extraordinary draconian provision.

There is enough provision for self regulation as well as for the course of law.

Even in this case, if the government had first approached the professional body to say, 'Look, this is unfair and this is in violation, what are you going to do about it?', if the professional body does not do anything, then the government has the right to say that they went through the legal process, and we found out that no action was forthcoming.

Therefore, we (the government) will use our right to recourse for various things.

We (the government) can go to court and take action against erring publications and channels.

Do you feel the government singled out NDTV for reporting on the Pathankot attack?

The Editors Guild of India's statement makes it very clear, isn't it?

There is no doubt what we stand for. This ban order should be rescinded immediately.

This is certainly infringing on the freedom of the press.

The media acts as the watchdog for the citizens of India and if anyone crimps on the media, it automatically begins to impact the freedom of the citizen.

The blanket ban (on NDTV) is not the answer.

NDTV says every other media organisation carried the same reportage and it is being singled out.

I will not go into any justification. I think every media should be responsible.

I am not saying that if a mob decides to do something crazy and I am being singled out, it is the right thing.

The government should have called for a review of all the channels and if all other channels have done it, then the government needs to answer why 'x' is penalised and why 'y' and 'z' were let off?

'This ban order should be rescinded immediately.'
'This is certainly infringing on the freedom of the press.'

It will be wrong for me to say that the government is acting out over partisan interest. I will not make that statement unless there is evidence to show that.

It is very important that all of us are fair and objective, including the government and the press on this matter.

In this case, one does not know the full details, but certainly several channels have reported on the Pathankot incident.

One needs to look at the coverage and I think an an independent body -- the News Broadcasting Standards Authority or broadcasting editors -- have said they will review the coverage of all the channels and see whether NDTV in fact crossed the line.

If a good review had been done, we would not have been in this position we are in now.

Do you think November 9 will be a black day for Indian democracy because the freedom of the media has been curtailed?

The Editors Guild has made a statement. We have been very clear in our statement and it is a very measured statement.

We believe in the fact that there is a lot of recourse, self regulation and the course of law that we could do.

The government still has the opportunity in my opinion to take a review.

After all, this is an inter-ministerial body that went into it (took the decision). The information and broadcasting ministry endorsed the view.

I think the government can look into it in a considerate manner. It is still not too late to take a call.

If the government feels its stance is correct, then why does it not put it to professional body scrutiny or to judicial review?

After all, peer review for us is most important.

Our credibility lies in the eyes of all our peers. No editor would like to be look down upon by his own counterparts.

To think we would work as a mob and condone erroneous journalism will be a mistake.

I think every editor is responsible, accountable and has independent judgement.

Hours after Prime Minister Modi spoke about the Emergency came the news of the NDTV blackout.
Do you share the perception that the Modi government wants to put the media in its place?

At the Editors Guild we go case by case. We do not make blanket judgements on the government.

We think every case should be reviewed in its own right rather than look at every move which the government makes suspiciously.

The government is responsible, it is a democratic government elected by the people of India.

If an action has been taken, we would certainly like the Government of India to review it.

We do not have any views on whether this government is biased or whatever it is.

The Editors Guild is very clear that we will take it issue by issue.

We are not a political party or a partisan body. We do not take sides on any issue.

What will the implication of this blackout be for journalism in this country?

Let us see what the outcome is. We do not want to set an unhealthy precedent on this matter.

IMAGE: The government claims NDTV India in its coverage of the Pathankot attack revealed sensitive information which put national security at risk.

Such a blackout has been done with general entertainment television channels before, never with a news channel.
Do you think there is a message here for the media that it must exercise self-restraint while covering future anti-terror operations?

Look, before jumping to huge conclusions on any matter, let us go into this individual case and see what the issue was.

I am sure it could have been sorted out instead of imposing this kind of a ban.

After all, at the end of the day, the government must have a dialogue with the press when it concerns certain issues of coverage.

There have been many occasions in the past where there have been many serious national security issues that required restraint among the press.

Whenever the government has appealed on the matter, I think most editors have responded with a great deal of responsibility.

On such matters we all act responsibly.

There is an impression that Ravish Kumar, NDTV India's prime time anchor, was anti-BJP...

(Interrupts). I am not going into specific issues. I said we will go case by case.

We are not condemning the government outright. We are only condemning this particular incident.

We believe this (the ban) should be rescinded. We are not making any broad rush (to judgment) on any of this issue.

The Editors Guild only looks at specific issue, it does not take a stance on the government or any other issue.

Can we say the media is not under attack from this government as some people say?

Don't read statements into any of this. You specifically asked the Editors Guild of India's view on this matter and I have given you the view.

We do not make broad-based statements. If we have to do that, we will need to have a full meeting of the Editors Guild of India and then we would decide.

There is no broad-based statement. Please make that clear.

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Syed Firdaus Ashraf / Rediff.com
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