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NDTV India ban: Who watches the watchmen?

editorials Updated: Nov 08, 2016 10:38 IST

Hindustan Times
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Youth Congress workers tying black badge to people during a demonstration to protest against one-day ban on NDTV, in Bhopal, India, November 6, 2016 (Mujeeb Faruqui/HT)

Another Emergency it isn’t, but the decision by the government to make Hindi news channel NDTV India go off air for a day does set an unhealthy precedent.

The media does need regulation, especially in an era of “breaking news” and click-bait journalism, where responsible and fair coverage is usually the first victim of the pursuit of ratings and traffic. In democracies, this should take the form of self-regulation. If that doesn’t work, as it sometimes hasn’t in India, regulation should be the domain of a quasi-judicial independent body.

Read | ‘Democracy’s darkest hour’ to ‘well deserved’: Who said what about NDTV India ban

One of journalism’s original objectives and ideals is to speak truth to power. By giving itself the powers to force news channels to go off air, the government is laying itself wide open to accusations of trying to, at worst, muzzle or, at best, influence, the news. And clearly, the right response to that argument does not begin with “what about...” and go on to detail previous instances where this has been done by the government of the day.

While the change in rules, prohibiting live coverage of terror attacks and anti-terror operations, was effected by the current government, much of the law as it is now, was drafted and passed by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Indeed, the UPA did force several channels temporarily off air as a punishment for alleged crimes that usually involved obscenity. Much like the current government’s crackdown on a news channel, all of these go against the tenet of freedom of expression.

Read | After calls to uphold press freedom, one-day ban on NDTV India put on hold

In India, the media derives its freedom from an article (19.1) of the Constitution that promises freedom of speech and expression. It sees this freedom limited by a subsequent article (19.2) that restricts this “in the 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”.

India is also one of the few democracies in the world where defamation can be a criminal offence (in addition to being a civil one). Both traditionally offered adequate legal recourse to penalise the media. In recent times, there has been a demand from several quarters for more regulation.

An independent regulator would serve that purpose. This is not the government’s job — nor is it, in any right-minded society, the government’s remit. From that perspective, the law is a draconian one.