Now, a censor for television

Government has passed an order against ‘anti-national’ content. But what does that really mean?
Last Updated 20 December 2019, 13:22 IST

Patriotism is when the love for your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first, said Charles de Gaulle, the face of French resistance against Nazi Germany.

Almost all governments, irrespective of their political colours, would make a deep dive to ratchet up the bogey of nationalism when in trouble. The latest case in point is an advisory issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on December 11, a day after Lok Sabha passed the controversial amendments to the Citizenship Act easing provisions for non-Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. A poll promise of the ruling BJP, the opposition to the contentious changes was based on the exclusion of Muslims from the list.

The government issuing an advisory to what can be broadcasted is nothing new. It had happened earlier too on several occasions reminding the channels to adhere to the provisions of Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 and rules framed under it. But this time, it caught the attention of many for its wording. It asked channels to be “particularly cautious” about the content that promotes “anti-national attitudes” and those containing “anything affecting the integrity of the nation”. The Programme Code framed one the basis of the Act says no programme should be carried in the cable service which “is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which promote-anti-national attitudes” as well as anything “affecting the integrity of the nation”.

While no one would object to a reminder about ensuring that the news content does not lead to a law and order issue, the emphasis on asking channels to be “particularly cautious” about promoting “anti-national attitudes” has raised the antenna. Several view it as not just a subtle nudge to remain sober in coverage on the about the coverage on the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 protests but a clear direction to toe the government line. Since Narendra Modi government came into power, there has been a trend where the opponents, protesters and activists were dubbed “anti-nationals”.

Opposition leaders had accused the government of creating a binary to suit its agenda.

Senior Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien tweeted soon after the advisory came out in public domain, “I&B Ministry Advisory to TV channels tantamount to media censorship. #CitizenAmendmentBill2019 Stop intimidating the media. A second Emergency!” Media reports from February claimed that the government had issued notices to two channels for airing a press conference of Pakistan military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor in which he spoke about the Pulwama attack.

A TV channel reporter, who was covering the December 19 at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, said when such explicit orders come, it usually makes the reporting difficult. “What is anti-national attitude is not defined. It is open-ended. So, if the government feels that one particular report is not in favour, it can invoke this,” the reporter said. He refers to a reporter of a rival channel, perceived to be pro-government and known for its rhetoric, who was going around asking protesters “are you against” one particular community. “This may go untouched. This may not come under anti-national attitude,” he laughs.

The problem with invoking such provisions is that it gives an easy handle to the government to dictate terms on what goes on air. An atmosphere of fear settles in. It infringes upon the right to free press and the right of the citizen to know what is happening with his life and country. It also questions the judgement of the journalist and the editor. Any government in a democratic set up need to know that a journalist’s job is to reflect and amplify people’s interests, citizens’ interests and not amplify what the government wants its citizen to know.
National interest does not mean the interests of the party in power. For a journalist, it is people’s interest that is paramount.

(Published 20 December 2019, 13:22 IST)

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