On 6 March, around 7:30 pm, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (I&B) sent an official order to two prominent Malayalam news channels declaring that they have been banned from going on air for the next 48 hours. Subsequently, the two news channels – Asianet News and MediaOne – went off the air for a few hours.
The government order cited that these channels have violated the provisions of the Cable Television Networks Rules 1994 and slammed the channels for covering the North East Delhi riots one-sidedly and questioning the RSS and Delhi police. It alleged that the news reports could have incited violence and posed danger to the maintenance of law and order as the situation in the region was already volatile.
“Channel seems to be critical towards Delhi police and RSS,” read a baffling official communique of the ministry to MediaOne. Notwithstanding the order makes no statement refuting the reports telecast by the news channels or questions its veracity.
It is heartening to learn that the channels have resumed telecast when I sit down to write this. But the decision of the central government to ban these channels from telecasting was outrageous, an affront attack on the freedom of the press.
Responding to a brief ban on the TV channels, I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar said that the BJP government has always been in support of the freedom of the press. “We immediately found out what actually happened and therefore immediately we restored the channels. Our basic thought process is that press freedom is absolutely essential for a democratic setup,” he said.
So did the minister implies that he was unaware of the ministry issuing such a crucial notice? Who has then authorized the officials to issue this notice? More questions are lingering around this.
North East Delhi burned for about a week when groups of armed men (CAA supporters) rampaged through Muslim-majority areas unleashing violence. They scoured for men wearing skull caps, beat them to the pulp, killed them and burned their shops and houses. Over 53 persons were killed, a majority of them Muslims, and about 2,000 people have been detained.
The violence-affected areas are now limping back to normalcy while men clad in khaki and Rapid Action Force are deployed in huge numbers to prevent any untoward incidents.
Coverage of Delhi riots
The violence erupted in the north-eastern parts of Delhi on the day the US President Donald Trump arrived for his maiden visit to India. Most of the TV channels were covering the ostentatious ‘Namaste Trump’ event while many in Delhi were crying for their lives hiding away from men wielding swords, iron rods, and even guns.
While violence and rampage continued in one part of the city, major television channels, except for a few, were busy telecasting the splendid dinner hosted by the President of India to his American counterpart and the first lady.
When national television channels turned appallingly a blind eye towards the ongoing riots, international media and regional media channels had continued its unrelenting coverage from riot-hit areas.
Malayalam channels, Asianet News and MediaOne, were in the forefront covering reports from ground-zero. It showed the harrowing and horrific scenes from the riot-hit areas and how Muslim areas and places of worship were destroyed.
These channels showed the plight of women and children and the fear and panic that have gripped over them. It was a news report by P R Sunil of Asianet News, which brought to light a poignant scene from Jaffarbad area where an 11-year-old boy writhing in the pain of a gunshot. Sunil reported that he saw the boy around 11 am when he reached the spot but there was no police personnel in the vicinity or an ambulance to take the child to a hospital. Later, the child was moved to a hospital by the police in the evening around 4:45 pm, hours since the incident had happened. Sunil reported that the police were unwilling to come to the spot initially even after they were informed about the incident.
The reporters, naturally, were critical of Delhi police for their inaction and the RSS for inciting violence as it was patently visible to their eyes.
Follow the diktats is the message
The egregious move of the central government reminds the actions of the Indira government during the Emergency Period. Modi government had been vehemently criticized for its efforts to muzzle independent media houses ever since it assumed power in 2014. The action against Asianet News and MediaOne, two regional news channels, is not the last but the first among the series to be followed.
Otherwise, why have the central government found just two Malayalam media channels responsible for inciting violence and stoking anger in an area where most of the people couldn’t even understand the language in which the reports were telecast. Or have they found any veritable evidence to prove that these reports have abetted any form of violence?
The message is loud and clear: abide by the diktats of the government. Else, face the risk. Though this has been a brief ban and the decision was revoked within hours, it shows that the Ministry can do this if it wants. With this, the Modi government has taken another audacious step to send a strong message to media critical of the government. This is despicable and deplorable in a democracy and must be fought tooth and nail.
While, the Kerala Union of Working Journalists has condemned the action of the central government, shockingly, mainstream Malayalam media, except for a few, chose to stay silent. This was appalling. When prominent news channels buried the news giving away a scroll, the print media dumped it on the inside pages. This has set a bad example. Cowering down before the sanctions of a power-wielding and an authoritarian government is suicidal. Media is the fourth pillar in a democracy and must be committed to delivering truth braving the odds, unflinching and unwavering.
Jestin Abraham is a freelace journalist who writes on politics, media and current affairs