Is India in a position to regulate 881 private satellite channels?
Is the Indian government in a position to ban this large spectrum of private satellite channels using one pretext or the other? The current dispensation did not think twice when they decided to muddy the waters by banning NDTV India and News Time Assam.
India presently has as many as 881 private satellite channels. Of these 399 are news and current affairs channels, while 482 fit into the entertainment category. These are separate from the large number of Prasar Bharati run channels under the apron of the national broadcaster which more or less follow the government regulations.
In fact, India has the largest number of privately- owned satellite channels in the world which are broadcasting in a variety of languages and offer very divergent perspectives on day-to-day politics being played out at the state and central levels.
It was the Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s decision to ban the NDTV channel for one day on the ground of violation of Rule 6(1) which prohibits live coverage of anti-terrorism activities which has brought the debate of media freedom to centre stage . Several political parties described the clampdown as shocking and authoritarian and being reminiscent of a `second emergency’.
This is the first time that the national security clause has been invoked though television channels have been banned in the past more often than not for airing adult content.
Media analysts question why the government came up with this ridiculous one-day ban in the first place? Has it served any purpose at all given that NDTV India had informed the government following the showcase notice that the channel’s coverage of the Pathankot terrorist attack comprised largely of information already in the public domain and provided to them through official briefings given by senior army and air force officials located in Pathankot itself.
Media analysts who follow channels closely confirm that there was nothing groundbreaking about NDTV India’s coverage of Pathankot. In fact, this channel has no history of breaking stories relating to anti-terrorist operations being conducted by the armed forces. Their forte has been more in the field of soft stories dealing in subjects disparagingly described in media circles as `women-oriented and children-related stories’.
Critics of the government insist this is one more example of arm-twisting . With the media and political outcry growing stronger, the government decided to put this decision `on hold’ but there are those who suspect that the present dispensation has scores to settle with the NDTV group and is, therefore, not hesitating to indulge in some muscle flexing.
However, the BJP has supported the government's decision to ban NDTV India for a day, insisting the nation comes first and there cannot be any compromise with national security. BJP’s national secretary Shrikant Sharma, while committing to supporting the freedom of the press, insisted that national security came first. The amendment in the Cable Television Network rules came into force in 2015 and was a follow-up of the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai in November 2008.
The I& B Ministry has sent show cause notices to 180 channels between 2004 and 2010 but so far 30 channels have been banned for periods between one day to two months for having violated the program and advertising codes.
The I&B ministry officials opine that implementing these rules is a nightmare and they begin to investigate cases generally on the basis of complaints lodged by consumers and occasionally rival channels.
Can information be controlled in the age of social media? Recent examples of the Bhopal encounter where several videos of the encounter have been placed in the public domain show that this is no longer feasible.
Targeting newspapers and channels is not going to work. Shutting them down may been seen as a draconian measure given that if the government attempts to block news, it will find its way in the social media. Anti-terrorist operations fall in another category, but even there, the only way forward may be to ensure regular government briefings to help provide a credible flow of information.