There is a lot of heartburn over the I&B ministry's order to take NDTV India channel off the air for a day, with many now comparing it to the draconian days of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
Well, before wading into that debate, we need to get these facts clear. The channel did air information that could have been used by terrorist handlers in Pakistan to direct their proxies to valuable Indian defense assets. And that is no airy fairy threat: it was something that was done during the 26/11 attacks.
Many commentators talk about how the same information is available on satellite photographs up for sale. There is a difference: among the information given out by the channel's reporters and editors were real-time coordinates of the exact location of the terrorists and how far they were from vital targets – information clear enough to direct the terrorists to important targets.
Those commentators who talk of stifling freedom of the press need to know that there is no absolute freedom. The freedom expressed by a journalist during the Kargil war to smoke – against warning from army officers – led to the loss of several jawans' lives. The 26/11 siege was extended thanks to freedom used by TV channels to air information on sensitive counter-measures real time.
Was the punishment to NDTV India justified? Was there another way to send across the same message to channels crazy about TRPs? Perhaps allowing the channel to air programs but no news, no live coverage for a day or for a week? That is something the news professionals who are now crying hoarse about media freedom need to discuss. The Editors Guild failed in its duty of policing it members; so before tilting at the government in a Quixotic way, it should look at what steps it could have taken, and can still take, to prevent a recurrence of such reportage. Or is it just another trade lobby? Then it should not talk about freedom of the press in such a sanctimonious manner.
Now, here is my main argument. Why punish the channel itself? Why not the editor (not the reporter)? The editors in media organizations make and break people's lives on a daily basis. They hold enormous soft power, in a way guaranteed by the Constitution. But they are mostly unaccountable for what they do, unless it affects the business interests of the organization. There are editors who hurry reporters to print stories and when new facts emerge, shy away from issuing corrections, or bury the corrections inside.
I have seen editors who almost force reporters to "create" stories based on dubious, sketchy information and then -- literally -- run out of the room when authorities ring up.
Question is, are the editors' responsibilities limited to adorning parties, giving lectures and speeches? When a channel's ratings go up, the editor's goes up too. Conversely, when the channel makes mistakes, the editor should be held responsible too. Could the government have punished NDTV India’s editor, or someone similarly responsible, instead of blanking out the channel itself?
To me that sounds logical. Is it the worry that the government will see the logic, sooner or later, that is driving the current round of protests? Go figure.
Well, coming back to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, it is definitely under attack. But that attack did not come from Modi alone, or start with him. It has been there, building up over the last couple of decades. Just that mainstream media ignored it. What Modi did different was to make the mainstream media – accustomed to getting its way with Congress governments and in return letting the latter get away on several issues – feel the pain.
What he did wrong was to blank out the channel for a day. He could have done it initially for a month, and then, made a show of reducing it to a day under pressure from the media. That is how the Congress operated. By going for a one-day ban right at the beginning, Modi left no quarters for himself or the media guardians. That perhaps was not standard operating procedure. J
I feel self-styled media watchdogs should use this opportunity to look at where they have slipped at self-regulation. It is this lapse that has largely brought about this situation, one that has left them with no leverage over the government.
No freedom comes without accountability. And when you ask for near-absolute freedom, you are also asking for near-absolute accountability.
(Views expressed are personal)