On Friday, Asianet News and MediaOne, two Malayalam news channels were banned for 48 hours by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry for their ‘biased coverage of the Delhi riots.’ According to the Ministry, the news channels could have incited violence, sided with a particular community, showed CAA supporters negatively, and were critical of the role of the police in the Delhi Riots. This is not the first time that a news channel has been taken off air for their news coverage. In 2016, NDTV was taken off air for divulging sensitive details while covering the Pathankot attacks.
Media One’s Editor-In-Chief called this a blatant attack on free and fair journalism. “The decision to bar TV channels is a warning to all media houses in the country that they should not criticize the government. Politicians like Oommen Chandy, Ramesh Chennithala, among others condemned this order and called it a violation of democratic rights. D Raja, CPI General Scretary said, “This is fascism in action”
On 7th March the I&B Ministry lifted the 48-hour ban before the stipulated time. According to Prakash Javadekar, the Information and Broadcasting Minister, the ban was lifted as soon as the government found out what had actually happened. Our basic thought process is that press freedom is absolutely necessary for democracy.” Javadekar claimed that Prime Minister Modi was equally concerned about the situation. A government that has been blatantly arm-twisting media outlets, is claiming to now have a change of heart.
According to the World Freedom of Press Index, India ranks 140 out of 180 countries in the world. The freedom of the press is a fundamental right, everyone has the right to seek and disseminate information. India has curbed this fundamental right through violence and government orders multiple times and it has gotten worse since 2014. As the world’s largest democracy, the ban on media outlets erodes democracy and Freedom of Press. Since 2014, the BJP government has raided news channels, employed large scale staff to monitor the media on their reporting of PM Modi’s activities, been selective in handing out TV licenses to media outlets, and had 376 internet shutdowns since 2014, with the longest being 214 in Kashmir. Since 2014 there have been over 200 serious attacks on journalists, most of them pertaining to the work they do. India has ranked in the top 5 countries which are the most unsafe for journalists in the world till 2018. During the Delhi riots, many journalists were injured, harassed, and attacked for doing their jobs. Between December 11, 2019, to December 21 2019, fourteen journalists were violently attacked, most of whom were Muslims, this number is sure to have risen in the recent spate of violence. Journalists have been in the center of online trolls, and have been labeled ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘presstitutes’, and a troll army has been sent after them. Journalist Swati Chaturvedi, who wrote a book about BJP trolls, uncovered that the party was behind the trolling campaigns.
The Modi government has made clear that it is not the job of the media (and apparently not of the people either) to hold the government accountable. Which is a large part of the reason the Prime Minister has never addressed a press conference since his party came to power in 2014.
Media channels, specifically broadcast media channels have been under the radar of the BJP government. Those channels that deviate from the standard reporting procedure, are heavily cracked down on. The brunt of the censorship has been faced by television news channels. Online news websites have not faced the censorship that news channels face because of the reach that they have. The only channels that have escaped this wrath are those that have been feverishly supportive of the BJP government and its activities. News channels like Republic TV, Times Now, and Zee News have all been ardent supporters of the BJP government. None of these channels have faced a blackout since BJP came to power.
With a very successful track record in curbing free speech, it will be surprising if more such Media bans, black outs, and violence against the press reduce or are addressed. Thus, Javadekar’s comments on BJP’s ‘basic thought process of freedom of the press being necessary for democracy’ is clearly a smokescreen to continue to do the exact opposite, to curb it to continue with oppressive state policies.