The government has served showcause notices on three news channels for coverage related to the execution of Bombay blasts convict Yakub Memon. What have the channels been accused of? What has the government based its action on?
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry said Aaj Tak and ABP News had denigrated and “cast aspersions on the integrity” of the judiciary by airing a telephone interview with Chhota Shakeel, in the course of which the gangster said Yakub Memon’s hanging was an act of vengeance rather than justice. The notice on NDTV was served because it showed Yakub’s lawyer Majeed Memon refer to a defendant who, according to him, had been pardoned despite having played a much bigger role in the bombings. The lawyer allegedly said authorities outside India would laugh at the pardon and ask, “Is this justice?” According to the I&B Ministry, Majeed Memon’s outburst had demeaned the judiciary, and insinuated that it was not at par with judicial systems in the countries such as the US and the UK.
The I&B Ministry does not, in fact, have the mandate to regulate content on TV channels. The broadcast industry has always insisted on self-regulation. It has strongly resisted attempts, made by both Congress- and BJP-led governments, to set up a body to regulate content, and has framed its own codes of content and ethics. The industry has set up two independent complaints and grievance redressal bodies — News Broadcasting Standards Authority, and Broadcasting Content Complaints Council — headed by retired Supreme Court judges, with professionals from all walks of life as members. The Ministry, however, gave these bodies a miss, and sent notices directly to the channels.
Even without the mandate to regulate their content, the government has a handle on channels through the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. All companies that seek to set up a broadcast network in India need licences to uplink and downlink their channel(s). The permission to set up the network is given by the I&B Ministry through powers vested in it by the 1995 Act.
Also, there are the Cable Television Network Rules, 1995, which must be read along with the Act. Part 6 of the Rules is the Programme Code, which is in the nature of broad guidelines in the form of do’s and don’ts. [Part 7 of the Rules is the Advertising Code.] While compliance with the Programme Code remains technically voluntary, the government can, because of the Code’s association with the Rules and the Act, use it to lean on channels.
“We believe that compliance with the Code is voluntary in nature and content regulation is outside the Ministry’s ambit. But because the Ministry has the authority to grant or revoke broadcast licences through the Cable TV Act of which the Code is an extended part, the Ministry often cites the Code’s provisions to raise objections, and the industry is forced to take note of them,” says N K Singh, general secretary of the Broadcast Editors’ Association (BEA). “It is an issue that has long been ignored by the industry, and needs to be sorted out,” Singh said.
So what does the Programme Code say? The Code has 15 sub-clauses that are mostly vague and subjective — and open to misuse. “No programme,” it says, “should be carried in the cable service which offends against good taste and decency”, “contains criticism of friendly countries”, or “anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half truths”. Sub-clauses (f), (g) and (i) of the Code are especially relevant to the Ministry’s notices to the channels: they warn against airing anything “amounting to contempt of court”, casting “aspersions against the integrity of the President and Judiciary”, and “criticis[ing], malign[ing] or slander[ing] any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country” respectively.
Several channels have been served notices and given warnings in the past for violating the Programme and Advertising Codes, but no licences have ever been revoked. The so-called offenders have been mostly let off after they have issued formal apologies. Some have been asked to go off air for a few days as extreme punishment.