NEWS

Dear NDTV, Have You Learnt Your Lesson Now?

Bending over backwards to please the government doesn’t help.

08/11/2016 8:37 AM IST | Updated 08/11/2016 9:34 AM IST
NEW! HIGHLIGHT AND SHARE
Highlight text to share via Facebook and Twitter
AFP/Getty Images
A news reporter with the Indian news channel NDTV holds a microphone in New Delhi on November 4, 2016.

The government may have developed cold feet about its one-day censorship of NDTV India, the Hindi channel, but NDTV and the media at large must learn the right lesson from the controversy. Bending over backwards will not appease this government, which has a black-and-white view of the media. Either you are with them or against them.

In the aftermath of the "surgical" strikes, NDTV tried saying "we are with you" but as the censorship attempt showed, the government is not amused by such claims.

On 6 October, NDTV 24x7, the English news channel, dropped an interview of former home minister P Chidambaram. The interview was conducted by Barkha Dutt in the aftermath of the "surgical" strike carried out by the Indian army against Pakistan. Chidambaram has claimed he said nothing controversial in the interview, largely supporting the government.

Chidambaram claims he said the government may want to release video evidence to call Pakistan's bluff, but whatever decision the government took in this regard, the Congress party would support it.

It wasn't just about one interview. NDTV actually said it was their editorial policy to not question the army, to "not air any remarks that risk security for political advantage" because "national security cannot be compromised by politics."

NDTV

The ludicrousness of the NDTV position was exposed when, on the same day, Rahul Gandhi made his "khoon ki dalali" comment at Jantar Mantar, accusing the government of playing politics over the blood of soldiers. As the remark became controversial and the day's top news, NDTV decided not to air it in keeping with its policy of keeping politics away from matters of national security. The trolls said NDTV was trying to save Rahul Gandhi.

When BJP president Amit Shah held a press conference next day to criticize Gandhi's remark as being anti-national, NDTV broadcast it. Was it not, now, a case of airing comments that let politics come in the way of national security? After all, Amit Shah doesn't even represent the government.

As the remark became controversial and the day's top news, NDTV decided not to air it in keeping with its policy of keeping politics away from matters of national security. The trolls said NDTV was trying to save Rahul Gandhi.

As was evident to everyone, NDTV tried to bend before the government. LK Advani's famous comment, that the press crawled when asked to bend by Indira Gandhi in the Emergency years, came to mind. As it turned out, in this case, a media house was willing to bend but the government said, 'that's not enough. We'll still censor you'.

In other words, what the government would like you to do is to crawl. Not just deny air-time to top opposition leaders, but become a mouthpiece of the government and the ruling party as quite a few channels and anchors have become.

It's easy to crawl before the government, but unless you are willing to do that, some bending isn't going to help.

In other words, what the government would like you to do is to crawl. Not just deny air-time to top opposition leaders, but become a mouthpiece of the government and the ruling party as quite a few channels and anchors have become.

As NDTV approached Supreme Court, the government said it was putting its order to NDTV on hold for reconsideration. It said it was doing so after meeting NDTV representatives led by promoter Prannoy Roy. One of the participants, NDTV editorial director Sonia Singh, has clarified the media house did "no pleading". NDTV has not "regretted" or "apologized" but continues to say it did no wrong. Indeed, NDTV India is being punished on flimsy grounds.

After the uproar over the government's order, it has issued similar orders to two more channels. It seems the government wants to contest the notion it was singling out NDTV for political reasons. The fact remains that the government is taking no action against other channels and newspapers which published the same information about the Pathankot attack as NDTV India did.

The timing of the government's order asking NDTV India seemed to have come conveniently when it needed something to shift attention away from the embarrassing suicide of an ex-serviceman over dissatisfaction with pensions. Now that purpose has been served and other news events have taken over, the government is happy to climb down on its order against NDTV.

It is important to note, however, that the government has not withdrawn its order, only suspended it indefinitely. Which is why NDTV must still pursue its case against the order in the Supreme Court.

While it does so, the veteran media house, and the media at large, must learn an important lesson. The powers that be never really respect those willing to bend before them. Since the government is going to come after you anyway if it wants, one must continue serving journalism rather than the government.

AFP/Getty Images
An Indian man walks in a parking lot of Indian news channel NDTV in New Delhi on November 5, 2016.

There's another reason why the media needn't bend, as NDTV did in October. It is also clear that our institutions – civil society, courts, media – are still strong enough to stand up to such blatant censorship.

The government took its decision well in time to pre-empt the embarrassment of a Supreme Court injunction against the order,

Information and Broadcasting minister Venkaiah Naidu, tweeting that the government was putting on hold its order against NDTV, said it respected freedom of speech and expression. He put out not one but four strong tweets defending his government against charges of censorship, recalling the Emergency and so on. This is proof enough that strong pushback from media and civil society won't let the government get away with muzzling the press, if it so tries.

More On This Topic