Last week, The News Minute reported on I&B Ministry‚Äôs warning and show-cause notice to Tamil news and current affairs channel Sathiyam TV. LiveLaw was the first to report. You can read a clear explanation of the Sathiyam TV issue here.
As we investigated further, it emerged that there could be a larger trend which is being missed. In the past year, I&B Ministry has issued several show-cause notices to news channels. The most prominent case was of the one issued to NDTV 24X7, ABP News and Aaj Tak for their coverage of the Yakub Memon case. But several notices and punitive orders sent to smaller, vernacular news channels have gone unnoticed. The role of the Ministry in censoring news must be examined more carefully, as compared to general entertainment, since news TV plays a crucial role in a democracy.
It is common practice that before the Ministry takes any action or even issues a warning to a private TV channel, it issues a show-cause notice seeking an explanation and then holds a hearing before a inter-ministerial committee (IMC). Apart from punitive orders asking that the channel be taken off air for a stipulated period, ‚Äėwarnings‚Äô are also considered punitive because repeated warnings allow the government to cancel broadcasting licenses.
Ideally, the Ministry should upload all show-cause notices it sends to each and every channel, but that is not being done. The Ministry does put out the details of all warnings and other punitive orders issued to private television channels which can be accessed here. However, it is not clear as to whether all the notices and the orders issued by the ministry are listed on that page at the moment.
We have been able to find two lists, one which lists details of orders, warnings or advisories (OWAs) issued to private TV channels (all types of TV channels) for violation of programme code between 2004 and 2008 and the second list which lists the same between April 2011 and March 2014.
Since March 2014, there is no consolidated list of OWAs, although there are individual orders which have been issued to private channels which are available on the page in a scattered manner.
Between 2004 and 2008, 180 OWAs were issued to different private TV channels. Of these, 37 were issued to TV news channels for violating the programming code in their news programmes (notices for non-news content excluded).
Between 2011 and 2014, a list of 74 OWAs is uploaded on the Ministry‚Äôs website. Of these, 9 were issued to news channels for news related content violation.
However, The News Minute has found that in the last one year alone, from August 2014 to August 2015, there have been at least 18 OWAs issued to private news channels for news related content violations, including two international channels, Russia Today TV and Al Jazeera.
Let‚Äôs get this straight: not all OWAs issued by the Ministry are problematic. For example, Vasanth TV, NTV DY 365 and A2Z News were issued warnings because they either disclosed or made it easy to find out the identity of sexual assault survivors, sometimes minors. In another instance, Sudarshan TV was warned for false news on Vice President Hamid Ansari. Action against these channels is justified.
But there are other warnings which have been issued, the reasons for which are at the very least debatable, Sathiyam TV being one of them.
Take the case of TV9 Telugu. In a an warning order which itself says that it was a ‚Äėpolitical satire show‚Äô, the Ministry took action because it ‚Äėdefamed‚Äô the Chief Minister of Telangana, ‚Äėappeared highly objectionable and indecent‚Äô and ‚Äėlikely to hurt his sentiment‚Äô. Quite obviously, satire is not done keeping in mind the ‚Äėsentiment‚Äô of the subject.
The case of Russia Today TV, to put it mildly, is hilarious. The Ministry‚Äôs order explains,
‚ÄúThe video began by showing a tight close shot of a woman's bosom which she was beating with meat pieces to create a thumping sound. This was followed by a similar shot showing a woman spanking meat pieces on her thighs. Then came another tight close shot showing a woman smacking her butt cheeks with meat flab. This shot, in particular, looked extremely indecent as the lingerie worn by the woman was extremely revealing (her butt cheeks were completely exposed with only a thin piece of cloth barely covering her vital body parts....The video ended with a visual that showed a woman holding a dead fish, hanging between her legs in a way that looked suggestive.‚ÄĚ
According to Ministry, the visuals which have been explained quite descriptively above, ‚Äúoffend against good taste and decency ...denigrating women through the depiction in any manner of the figure of a women....was likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals.‚ÄĚ
In a several other cases, like News Live TV, Kalaignar TV, 24 Ghanta TV News, Raj TV News, Channel-2 TV News, the channels were issued warnings because they aired visuals which were ‚Äėdisturbing‚Äô or ‚Äėinsensitive‚Äô. This includes visuals showing dead bodies at crime scenes, dead bodies hanging from the ceiling fan and gory accidents. It could be argued that such visuals are not meant for unrestricted public viewing ‚Äď but who decides exactly what can be allowed and cannot be? Bureaucrats? Then what is the role of editors? For, in some cases, it is the very shock value of the visuals which sends home to message to the viewer, as was seen in the Badaun rape case, in which a single picture of two alleged rape victims hanging from a mango tree shook the conscience of the nation.
Further, it is not known who is the complainant in these cases, and if the ministry is taking suo motu action.
State governments too have been alleged of censorship, often illegally.
For instance, in Telangana, several channels that were critical of the Chief Minister were reportedly blacked out ‚Äėvoluntarily‚Äô by cable operators last year, allegedly fearing a backlash from the government if they don‚Äôt do so.
In Tamil Nadu too, there are allegations of the state-owned Arasu Cable Network creating hurdles for non-cooperative private news channels.
Lawyer and activists are worried. Those involved in the litigation of some of these cases say that they have noticed a distinct trend in the government going after vernacular news TV channels in the recent past.
Others also say that the Ministry‚Äôs role is act as a watchdog, not behave like a moral-police. ‚ÄúThe Ministry must know that they are not a super-censor. They cannot use their powers to enforce their notions on private news channels,‚ÄĚ says Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde.
Blogging about the arbitrary and extra-legal nature of the Ministry‚Äôs censorship, Apar Gupta writes that we ‚Äúneed to look beyond the regressive content code. Any content regulation must place an emphasis on context and censorship has to be proportional to the end that is sought to be achieved.‚ÄĚ Further, he says, ‚Äúany legal reform must appreciate the role of the public as not only having the right to complain against offensive content but also the right to view it.‚ÄĚ
Neeti Sarkar, Director (BC), Ministry of Information and Broadcasting did not respond to calls and text messages.