The one-day ban on NDTV India once again highlights the troubling relationship that exists between governments and media content in our country. Frankly, if a government ministry is given the power to unilaterally regulate media content and impose punishments on content creators, we’re setting ourselves up for situations like these.
Much before the current government came to power, there have been debates on the Information & Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry’s powers to regulate media, especially powers to ban (see the post-scripts for some examples). Experiences from The Emergency as well as more recent incidents ought to have told us this is a vulnerable institutional setup. Even with a well-meaning government, a power structure like this provides too much incentive to clamp down.
The media in this country is not the best. It can be biased, self-centred, and sometimes even unethical. But in a country where so many of our key issues revolve around government action, successes, and failures, asking a government ministry to regulate media is like asking companies to regulate their auditors. Such a structure is prone to collapse, and it’s time we came up with alternatives. Perhaps we need an independent regulator for television news. It doesn’t solve all problems of media control, but it’s a good start.
The NDTV India case however, has deeper concerns, most prominently that it is being punished on grounds of national security. This goes beyond regular offences that electronic media are normally pulled up for. An accusation of compromising national security is far more serious than say, broadcasting obscene content. The seriousness of the charge therefore requires greater rigour, scrutiny, and transparency than usual. Furthermore, NDTV India must be given a fair chance to defend itself from the charge, and most importantly, the I&B Ministry alone should not be deciding its fate.
If NDTV India did indeed compromise national security, a move to take the channel off air as punishment ought to be authorised by more than a government ministry or an independent regulator. One possible way could be to be back the move with a resolution passed by both houses of Parliament, open to review by a court of law. There may be other, better ways as well. Whatever be the process, the underlying principle should be that any decision to punish on grounds of national security should be quarantined from the incentives of those who usually handle national security, whether these incentives are potential or real. This principle works both ways – it also protects governments from bias or accusations of bias.
None of this is to say that media excesses shouldn’t be called out. There are a host of problems which affect the news media industry nowadays – breaching ethical norms, a bias towards covering big cities, a skewed focus on TRPs, paid news, ownership conflicts, an absence of neutrality, and so on. These need to be addressed. However, two things need to be kept in mind. First, processes matter as much as outcome – however a media agency is punished, it should be demonstrated that the process is fair and just. Second, accusations like compromising national security need to be treated with much more care than most other charges, simply because of their seriousness. A judgement on such a charge cannot come from the I&B Ministry, an independent regulator (if it existed) or indeed, even the whole executive. It must ideally be backed by the legislature and subject to review by the judiciary.
This is not the first time a channel has been banned in India, but it is probably the first time a news channel’s being banned for compromising national security. It becomes all the more important for us to think about what this means going forward and call out excesses when they happen. For now, this ban must be criticised.
(1) There are commentaries out right now which asks us to recognise that NDTV India only happens to the first big mainstream media channel to be subject to such a ban. Kashmir Reader, a newspaper based in Jammu & Kashmir, has apparently been banned on similar grounds. I’m not familiar with the Kashmir Reader issue (which is telling in itself) but if it’s anything like the NDTV India ban, most of the same arguments will probably apply there as well.