Under what legal provisions did the government impose the one-day bans on NDTV India and News Time Assam?
Provisions under The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995, and the Policy Guidelines for Uplinking of Television Channels from India, which were first introduced in 2000, give the government the power to block the transmission and re-transmission of any channel in the country.
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Section 20(3) of the Cable TV Act says: “Where the Central Government considers that any programme of any channel is not in conformity with the prescribed programme code referred to in section 5 or the prescribed advertisement code referred to in section 6, it may… regulate or prohibit the transmission or re-transmission of such programme.”
The programme and advertising codes are part of The Cable Television Network Rules issued in 1994. The Rules specify what cannot be broadcast: anything that “offends against good taste or decency”, can incite violence, “is not suitable for unrestricted public exhibition”, encourages superstition, is a criticism of “friendly countries”, etc.
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry found that NDTV India had violated 6(1)(p) programme code. News Time Assam was found to have violated multiple sections of the Code during three different shows. One show allegedly violated even a directive issued by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. The channel was ordered to run a ticker apologising for their shows, but it allegedly did not comply.
What does Rule 6(1)(p) of the Programme Code say?
Rule 6(1)(p) prohibits live coverage of anti-terrorism activities: “No programme should be carried… (which) contains live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces wherein media coverage shall be restricted to periodic briefing by an officer designated by the appropriate Government, till such operation concludes.”
When was this Rule introduced?
The point 6(1)(p) was introduced by an amendment to The Cable Television Network Rules last year, which came into force in March 2015. Following the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, between November 2008 and March 2015, the government issued five advisories to television channels on the coverage of such incidents. Four of these were issued by the Congress-led UPA regime — to which union ministers M Venkaiah Naidu and Manohar Parrikar referred to after the criticism of the ban on NDTV India. Naidu told reporters on Monday that the Cable TV Rules were amended “since a rule would be more binding than an advisory”.
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But did NDTV India violate the provisions of the Rule?
According to the I&B Ministry, the channel broadcast a report which stated that two terrorists were alive and were very close to the ammunition depot. The government said this gave away sensitive information and could have helped the terrorists. NDTV in its response to the showcause notice claimed that all such information was already in the public domain, already reported by newspapers and by other news channels. The channel said it reported after briefings by Maj Gen Dushyant Singh, Air Officer Commanding JS Dhooman, and Brig Anupinder Singh at different times, and based on already available reports. After the Ministry passed the order, NDTV said, “It is shocking that NDTV has been singled out… Every channel and newspaper had similar coverage. In fact, NDTV’s coverage was particularly balanced.”
To whom does the Programme Code apply? Is it binding?
The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Ordinance was promulgated in 1994, which gave the government powers to issue Rules for Cable TV. The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995 made the Rules introduced in 1994 binding on all cable networks which are either downlinked to, or uplinked from, India.
Is there a similar provision for the print media as well?
No. Since there are no content-specific laws or binding rules for the print media, and nor is a licence required to publish a newspaper, there isn’t any similarity with the government’s regulatory powers over TV news.
The Press Council does have guidelines, but a newspaper’s registration with the Registrar of Newspapers for India cannot be cancelled for any violation. However, some sections of the Criminal Procedure Code give the government power to ban a publication or cease its printing. Section 144, under which a District Magistrate or any other Executive Magistrate can order the confiscation of property if he or she “considers that such direction is likely to prevent, or tends to prevent, obstruction, annoyance or injury to any person lawfully employed, or danger to human life, health or safety, or a disturbance of the public tranquility, or a riot, of an affray”, has been used to confiscate printing presses to stop publication of newspapers and pamphlets.
There are some state-specific laws which governments have used to censor newspapers. For example, Kashmir Reader has been banned since October 3. The administration invoked Section 144 of the CrPC and two state laws — Newspapers Incitement of Offences Act, 1971 and Press and Publication Act, 1989 — to ban the publication of the newspaper.
Have governments taken similar action against the media in the past?
As per the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting web site, between 2004 and 2010, at least 180 showcause notices were sent to various channels for violation of the Programme and Advertising Codes. Between 2005 and November 2016, 30 channels have been ordered to be banned for periods ranging from 1 day to 2 months for violations of the Programme and Advertising codes. When the codes were brought in, private television was a nascent industry. As of September 30 this year, there are a total of 881 private satellite channels — 399 are news and current affairs channels, and 482 are non-news and current affairs channels.
So how does all of this fit in with the constitutional freedoms guaranteed under Article 19?
India does not have specific laws protecting the freedom of the media. But journalists and journalism thrive on the broader freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. Article 19 gives all citizens the right to freedom of speech and expression. However, the first amendment in 1951 put “reasonable restrictions” on the use of Article 19 with regard to topics such as the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.