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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2521

Govt makes hasty retreat

By M. Rama Rao - Syndicate Features

Happily, the Manmohan Singh government has made a retreat rather hastily from confronting the media with its ill-advised move to muffle the TV news channels. The media fraternity saw proposed amendments to the Cable Television Network Regulations (CNR) Act as a throwback to the dark days of the Emergency, although a feeble attempt to ‘discipline’ the press was made only about a year ago when some channels were taken off the air for airing programmes that did not meet the approval of the custodians of Indian ‘morality’. Both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi are credited with the decision to put on hold the proposed media curbs. They deserve a big thank U, certainly.

Attempts to gag the press in India are not new. These have been made from time to time since the Emergency. But after those ‘dark days’ in the 1970s these moves did not succeed. However, it might be instructive to recall that with few exceptions the media readily gave in to the government during the Emergency days, inviting a condescending comment from the present Lauh Purush of the Bharatiya Janata Party, L.K. Advani that the media crawled when asked to bend.

It is difficult to say with certainty that this time around the government is serious about introducing the ‘draconian’ amendments in the CNR Act. A clear deterrent would be the impending Lok Sabha election. A government or the ruling combination would not like to go to the polls after inviting the wrath of the media.

Yet, fears in the media will not disappear altogether. The amendments have been vetted by the law ministry, which would suggest that care has been taken to overcome any legal hurdles that might arise in formally bringing in the amendments. The proposed amendments have also been reportedly sent to the ministries of home and defence to get their opinions, which can be guessed as in favour of even more ‘draconian’ changes in the CNR Act.

Two things about the proposed amendments have particularly angered the media. One is the provision that in times of ‘national crisis’, which will include a terrorist attack, it will be necessary for the private TV channels to carry the (delayed) feed provided by a ‘nodal agency’—a government agency, more likely Doordarshan.

The second is the provision that allows district and sub-divisional magistrates and also police commissioners to pull up an erring channel, blocking its programme and even seizing transmission equipment.

There is every reason to be apprehensive about these two, particularly the last one. The district government officials of the ranks of DMs and SPs are often accused of autocratic and arbitrary behaviour. Their judgement of what constitutes the violation of the amended CNR Act may not be sound or it may well result from some ‘extraneous’ consideration.

In a free and democratic country like India any attempt to muzzle the press is bound to be opposed. It is something that also affects the reputation of the country, never mind the fact that Indian democracy is among the most chaotic and has more than its dues share of warts.

The constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech allows the press in the country to function freely. If relations between the government of the day and sections of the press have often been strained in the past it did not matter. The media as the watchdog of the society has little choice but to play some kind of an adversarial role vis-à-vis the government. The press remains a pillar of the society and a more lofty view is that it also remains a friend of the common man and the downtrodden.

It is the following among the ordinary people that has given journalism more teeth and guts to take on the high and the mighty of the land. The public support was undoubtedly one of the factors that eventually prevented previous governments (notably in Bihar under Dr. Jagganth Mishra and Andhra Pradesh under NT Rama Rao) from bringing in any measure that would ‘subjugate’ the press and convert it into a public relations department of the sarkar.

But in recent years there has apparently been a slight shift in the public perception of the press, particularly the visual media. Some of the ‘sting’ operations were found to be too intrusive or false or both. They had ruined the lives and careers of respectable persons. The visual media also aroused a lot of public anger by the manner in which it had covered certain crime stories, especially one about the murder of a teenage daughter of a dentist couple in NOIDA.

The ordinary viewers were beginning to question the ethics of the channels and thought that they have been guilty of going overboard in their coverage. Many of the private news channels have been accused of relying too much on sensationalism and even encouraging social evils like superstition.

More worrying for the media must have been an outcry in many sections over the manner in which the 26 November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks were covered. The allegation is that the ‘live’ coverage of the anti-terror operation had only hampered it and ‘helped’ the terrorists by giving them information of the operation being launched against them.

In fact, the move to amend the CNR Act is a direct outcome of the criticism of the Mumbai terror coverage. Sections of the media, especially the print media, had joined the chorus in questioning the TV ‘live’.

The internal criticism in the media was followed by an announcement that a code was being prepared to introduce some in-house regulatory measures. But this announcement would have generated only scepticism because similar words were heard earlier also at the time of the fake sting operation and the NOIDA murder coverage.

Perhaps time has come when the media realised that it has to take its responsibilities more seriously. The danger that the media faces may or may not come from the government, but if the media angers the general public then it will only make the task of bringing in laws to curtail freedom of the press easier for the government.

- Asian Tribune -

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