NDTV India, the Hindi channel of the NDTV group could be blacked out for one day on November 9. The allegation against them is that they endangered lives of security personnel and civilians by broadcasting sensitive details about an attack by terrorists on the Indian airbase in Pathankot last January.
The fallout over the impending ban is telling, in some ways even more revelatory than the ban itself. Beyond the noise and roll of drums, there are four strands that emerge. One, banning only one media house when several others are equally guilty of the same type of reporting at this or other times smacks of hypocrisy at best and playing to the galleries at worst. This may also be a way for the government to lessen the heat on itself for not looking into alleged corruption charges against the channel. â€˜Look we did somethingâ€™ is probably how that could drift.
Second, the G-37 (same people, same time, same channels) is getting it rather wrong because they are remarkably uniform in their narrow assumption that this is a precedent-setting ban. It is not. No ban resembles another which is why the need for a system is pressing, a system that is robust and protects the rights of journalists as well as that of their employers while respecting India's institutions and its people. More of that in another post.
The third strand which is a corollary of the second, is the ridiculous and rather arrogant position that just because a national network has been pulled up, we are getting the first whiff of an Emergency-like situation. The very people who are crying the Emergency wolf are touring India addressing meetings and seminars on tolerance and intolerance. Yet others advice the government on matters as diverse as policy and media. Stupidity and complicity has rarely been so amply served in recent weeks. This is a dangerous mix.
The fourth piece is perfidious because among the alarmists are media people including some senior journalists and media bodies who can be rather whimsical in choosing to condemn or deciding to ignore problems with the media. I use the word perfidy knowing fully well that it is not uncommon for editors and others to be duplicitous about why news stories are primed, played down or killed. The ban on NDTV India must be called out, but so must the numerous other instances when journalists have even been killed in their line of work.
Back to the ban. If the NDTV India reporter was transmitting privileged information, the question that naturally follows is why were journalists allowed to go to sensitive areas especially when a gun battle was on? How did their transmitting devices and equipment get past security and other checks? If there are holes in the system - and hopefully there's de-briefing on this - why have they not been plugged. I could go on. Journalists will always go where they are not supposed to â€“ this is part of our job. It is the job of the government to lay down rules and ensure their water-tight implementation. New Delhi cannot count on personal wisdom of a reporter to deal with that. I have covered the Bosnian war once from Sarajevo (and was stuck in a curfew and later severely pulled up for inadvertently breaking rules) and once from Zagreb where conditions were not as dangerous but rules were strictly imposed. A guideline is not a rule especially in India where most star journalists are no more than a phone call away from discretionary help and political patrons.
For its part I hope NDTV India will challenge the ban in a court of law. That will be precedent setting and will plough new avenues for journalism in India. It will take time and energy, but if you believe in something you should see it through. We the people of India are looking at a critical principle in a democracy here as well as the role of the fourth estate in securing it. We cannot bring this issue - freedom, rights and responsibilities - from people to person as is currently happening. It concerns us all.
In a parallel world the G 37 would be laughed out of the room, but they are a reality in India and their moveable angst must be addressed. Some of them have been rearing to find reason for survival in recent times and may have found it in the government's self-inflicted floundering. It is no secret that the BJP-led NDA is not flushed with talent, especially when it comes to articulating issues or dealing with the media. I am not talking of fixers or planters of stories. I am speaking of women and men who can engage with the media including the most critical ones in a meaningful way. It is healthy to engage with intelligent adversaries including internal adversaries.
In the absence of a healthy dialogue, we are at the mercy of demagogues on all sides, eager to claw space for themselves. Journalistic integrity is a casualty here. The farce is complete when they respond to their echoes and jump at their own shadows. They believe Delhi is India and anything that happens to a G 37 is national news. L'affaire NDTV India has shown that the government has a faulty and leaky system incapable of taking the most basic decisions even during a terrorist attack when everything should be on highest alert. By hanging people it hangs around with at the expense of a genuine national media dialogue, the government has also opened itself up to mirth and laughter. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has an excellent system to engage with the media - why is this not a best practise top learn from?
In some of his speeches in Hindi, Narendra Modi uses words like chaturyam or samartyam. Chanakya was chatur. Former Indian Prime Minister Narasimha was chatur, and Delhi could not see him for what he was. There is no translation in English for the thought process, actions and sophistication these words imply. Being chatur is neither cunning nor Machiavellian and not even crafty as all of them have a negative connotation. What Modiâ€™s not-yet-existent national media and communications office needs is people with chaturyam, not chatterboxes who cannot tell the difference between national security and a television debate.