The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Monday put on hold its decision to take NDTV India off air for a day on November 9 after the TV channel made a “representation in this regard”.
The order came after four NDTV officials, including its co-founder Prannoy Roy, met Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting M Venkaiah Naidu. It is learnt that I&B Secretary Ajay Mittal and Press Information Bureau Director General Frank Noronha were also present at the meeting.
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The order by Director (Broadcast Content) Neeti Sarkar stated: “The channel has made representation in this regard, which is under examination. Pending such examination, it is hereby ordered that operation of the said order be held in abeyance till further orders.”
Also Monday, NDTV moved Supreme Court, challenging the Ministry’s decision to ban NDTV India for a day for allegedly revealing “strategically sensitive information” during the course of its coverage of anti-terror operations at the Pathankot airbase earlier this year.
Contending that “the action of the government has had a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression”, the NDTV petition stated that the decision was “violative of the right of the petitioners under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution”.
Sources said Prannoy Roy, at the meeting with Venkaiah Naidu, requested that the I&B order be put on hold. He was said to have pointed out that NDTV’s point of view had not been fully appreciated in the right perspective by the inter-ministerial committee (IMC) which recommended the ban.
Sources said Naidu acceded to the request till disposal of the appeal and had a detailed discussion with Roy on different aspects of NDTV India’s coverage and the IMC recommendation.
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Naidu, sources said, explained the context in which rule 6(1)(p) was introduced into the Programme Code last year that prohibits live coverage of anti-terrorist operations by security forces — and which the IMC said had been allegedly violated by NDTV India.
Later Monday, Naidu, in a series of tweets, said the NDA government has “no ill-will against anyone” and “believes in freedom of expression” unlike the “Congress which muzzled free speech in 1975 & between 2004-2014.”
“The top leadership of NDTV had sought a meeting with me. Today we met & during our meeting they requested revocation of ban on NDTV India… Inter Ministerial Committee is clear that NDTV has violated due process & procedure & compromised nat’l (national) security in their coverage of Pathankot attack,” Naidu said, “But, in sync with the government’s liberal democratic ethos & principles, this decision was taken with regard to NDTV.”
“All of us in GOI fought the emergency tooth & nail and will resist any attack on freedom of expression & defeat those forces,” he said.
Earlier in the day, media bodies stood in solidarity with NDTV and criticised the Centre’s move, saying it sends a “dangerous signal” to the entire press.
Representatives of Editor’s Guild of India, Indian Women’s Press Corps, Federation of Press Clubs, Delhi Union of Journalists, Press Club of India and senior journalists from several media houses called for a united fight for freedom of the press.
The Press Club, on behalf of media bodies, passed a resolution: “The protest meeting representing various media organisations resolves that the decision is… arbitrary and violates the fundamentalist principles of freedom of expression.”
“It is unfortunate and condemnable that the central government has resorted to extreme measures when press freedom is already under increasing threat in the country. This sends a dangerous signal to the entire media and undermines the safeguards under the democratic right of free expression enshrined in the Indian Constitution,” it said.
In its petition in the Supreme Court, NDTV sought to get declared as unconstitutional pertinent provisions of the Policy Guidelines for Uplinking of Television Channels and of the Cable TV Network Regulation Act.
“The role of the government in granting permission for uplinking/downlinking and operating TV channels must necessarily be limited to regulation of the user of airwaves and matters relating thereto. Once a channel is granted permission to uplink/downlink, then control of the content, it is submitted, cannot ever be made subject to governmental control,” the petition stated.
It contended that the fatal flaw of the legal provisions is that it confers power upon the executive to sit in judgment on content of free speech, expressed through the medium of television broadcast.
“The statutory provisions are cast in wide language. The Programme Code, which is sought to be made in pursuance of the provisions of this Act, is entrusted for its enforcement to the executive, and it is the executive which is given the discretion to decide as to which content violates the broad provisions of the Programme Code,” it maintained.
Pointing out that the nature of the power extends to pre-censorship, NDTV complained that the ambiguity in the provisions resulted in the government assuming to itself the power to ‘punish’ a TV channel by directing it to go off air for a day.
“Article 19 (1) (a) which is considered to be a preferred right, ring fences content of free speech from executive interference. It is also now well settled as a proposition of constitutional law that any adjudication of the quality of content for an alleged violation of the code of ethics has to be by an authority other than the executive,” it stated.