Media freedom: Is it absolute?

Madhusudhana Rao S

The Information & Broadcasting Ministry’s one-day ban on the Hindi channel, NDTV India, for allegedly compromising the national interests during its live TV coverage of terrorist attack on Pathankot in January has raised a tsunami of political dust and media heat.

Reactions to the ban in the print and digital media are not unexpected. Nor is the severe criticism from opposition parties which likened it to Emergency. While the media bodies see attempts by the right-wing BJP government to control information flow in such penal actions, political parties like Congress, AAP  and TMC have lashed out at BJP for ‘gagging freedom of expression’. The BJP government, on the other hand, has justified the ban, saying it acted according to the provisions of prevailing laws.

While nobody could sit in judgment to decide who is right and who is wrong, freedom of expression in its myriad forms is subject to interpretation. The scope and application of freedom of expression also changes from time to time, society to society and country to country. What’s acceptable at a particular period to some people may become offensive to others.

We have had dozens of instances where books were banned because they allegedly hurt the sentiments of a particular community; artists were hounded out because they had depicted the divine in a sacrilegious way; films titles, dialogues, songs and dances were censored because of offensive usage of language, skin exposure, vulgarity, etc. Even attempts on the lives of creative people had been made because their freedom of expression deemed either profane or inimical to the harmonious living of various communities.

Whenever a book was proscribed or a film faced Censor Board’s axe, the question of freedom of expression, artistic or otherwise, raises its head and triggers political and media debate. The issue here is not the freedom of expression in any form but how one perceives it. For example, a painting of a nude female body is a beautiful art for some while for some others it is obscene. Similar is the case with words of expression, forms of art, broadcasts and telecasts of events live. In the latter case, it’s not just disseminating information but a blow-by-blow account of events and happenings as they unfold.

In recent years, live coverage has increased manifold. If the TV has brought global events, from gory to glorious, into our homes, mobile apps have obviated the necessity of sitting in front of the TV or a computer screen to know what’s happening around the world. The apps will fetch whatever info you want and flash it on the device in a jiffy. In other words, modern technology has made information availability instantaneous.

The advantages of instant info travel are many as we are all well aware of. But it also has a negative side that comes into full play during a crisis, particularly, when a nation’s security is involved.

Take, for example, the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai. It was a war-like situation as the scale of horror started unfolding. We had live TV coverage, including the movement of our commandos. Almost everyone had glued to the TV set to watch the drama, which could have been a part of Hollywood war movies. But the suspense and thrill apart, the coverage had kept the viewers in India and abroad updated by the minute. Surely, the 24X7 coverage had doused anxiety to some extent but it also helped the masterminds of attacks to instruct the terrorists and tweak their strategy, as communication intercepts had shown later.

Here, the question arises, which is more important: national security or the professional obligation of giving out information as the media enjoys freedom of expression? Since the Mumbai carnage, the question is being repeatedly asked and debated ad nauseam whenever a similar attack occurs on Indian soil. We can’t find a solution or reach a point of compromise, however hard we discuss, because both are important and crucial for a democratic polity. 

The order on NDTV India (Hindi) channel to go off air on November 9 falls into such category. Both the government and the opposition as well as some media houses have stood their ground and started firing salvo after salvo. The battle has finally turned into a political slugfest that will peter off after November 9.  Though there will be no winners or losers in the whole exercise, what’s not realized is an opportunity exists to devise a formula that can be successfully used to avoid clashes of interest in future. The statements issued by the government and opposition leaders as well as by the media associations are no more than reiterating their standard clichéd positions rather than making attempts to reach a middle ground.

The position of the Indian Constitution on this subject is clear: Article 19(1)(a) makes the ‘right to freedom of speech and expression’ a fundamental right. But it is not an absolute right.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, made on June 18, 1951, states that “interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with Foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence” will be paramount and freedom of expression will not be unconditional. Other sections like 298, 292, 295 A and 153A deal with obscene publications that cover books, papers, pamphlets, paintings, etc, deliberate and malicious acts, words and signs, etc. and spoken or written words or representations that promote enmity etc. There are many other laws which, if enforced strictly and observed by the citizens in letter and spirit, leading a normal life willy-nilly is impossible.

Nevertheless, as far as NDTV Hindi channel ban is concerned, two issues stand out: Government defence and the opposition and media position. The government’s stand that the action has been taken under relevant laws (as explained above) is right. In fact, Information and Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah Naidu went to great lengths on Saturday to explain under what sections of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, the order had been given. Nobody disputes it but the issue is why only one channel when others too had shown similar footage? No satisfactory answer is forthcoming.

NDTV was one channel that had shown extreme restraint when it withheld an interview of P Chidambaram by Barkha Dutt in its anxiety to be seen as politically correct and fair. It is ironical that such a channel was selected to be punished leaving aside other channels which were more aggressive in their presentation.

Another unanswered question is why the government acted after so many months when it thought the Channel coverage of the January 2 raid was objectionable? Normally, authorities seek an explanation first, then issue the action notice. In this case, it took for I & B Ministry nine long months to decide on the course of penal action against the Channel. 

In any case, the belated one-day ban is reprehensible in a democratic country and gives an authoritarian tag to the ruling party and the government. In fact, this ugly confrontation between the BJP government and a section of the media could have been avoided had the government convened a meeting of all the parties concerned and discussed the issue threadbare and framed guidelines for future coverage. Since neither side had done it, it’s time the media organizations set standards for themselves and follow them without indulging in rat race for ratings.

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