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'Ridiculous and arbitrary'

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
November 7, 2016

Journalists have condemned the Indian government's decision to ban a news channel for a day over its coverage of a terror attack on an air force base earlier this year. Murali Krishnan reports from New Delhi.

Indien Pathankot Punjab Kontrolle Polizei
Image: Reuters/M. Gupta

On Monday, November 7, one of India's major broadcasters, NDTV, challenged the government's one-day ban on its Hindi-language channel in the country's Supreme Court. The ban has been put on hold after the apex court agreed to hear NDTV's appeal on Tuesday. 

The officials decided to ban NDTV India last week over allegations that the channel gave out "sensitive" information during its coverage of a January attack on the Patkhankot air base. The government said the information could have been used by the terrorists' handlers, thus threatening the national security.

In its statement, the ministry said that NDTV disclosed details about the ammunition on the airbase "which was likely to be used by the terrorists themselves or their handlers to cause massive harm not only to national security, international standing of the country but also life of civilians and defense personnel."

Indian air force's base in Pathankot was attacked on January 1 by alleged terrorists from Pakistan. Seven Indian soldiers and six militants were killed in the assault.

The state of free speech in India

The government's decision to temporarily ban NDTV's coverage was widely censured by activists, journalists' unions and opposition politicians. They accuse the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of singling out NDTV due to its independent news and of muzzling free speech in the country.

"This (the ban) is ridiculous and arbitrary. This is blatant censorship," Sevanti Ninan of the Hoot monitoring group, told DW.

Sandeep Bhushan, a media commentator, said the allegations against NDTV were baseless. "The channel did not reveal anything which was not there in the public domain and which was not reported by other TV channels and newspapers. This is an attempt to control the press," Bhushan told DW.

Media censorship is not new in India. In the past, writers, academics and artists have also come under attack from politicians and religious groups, and various films, theater plays, books and paintings have also been banned.

Indien Zeitungen
Activists accuse the government of muzzling free speech in the countryImage: Getty Images

But media activists and journalists now fear a bigger and more organized attempt from the government to rein in the freedom of speech.

Last year, the information and broadcasting ministry prohibited broadcasters from the "live coverage of any anti-terror operation by security forces, wherein media coverage shall be restricted to periodic briefing by an officer designated by the appropriate government authority."

Modi government slammed

Many believe the government wants to control the media by using the national security pretext.

The Editors Guild of India, an organization representing the editors of newspapers and magazines, billed the ban order as a direct violation of press freedom in the country.

"This first-of-its-kind order to impose a blackout has seen Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government entrust itself with the power to intervene in the functioning of the media and take arbitrary punitive action as and when it does not agree with the coverage," Raj Chengappa, the Guild's president, told DW.

NDTV's competitors have also slammed the decision.

Narendra Modi Pathankot Indien
NDTV disclosed 'sensitive information' on the Pathankot attack, say officialsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Press Information Bureau

"We express deep concern. This is saddening," famous TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai, who works for the India Today channel, told DW.

Ravish Kumar, NDTV India's editor who presented the Pathankot live coverage, believes the Supreme Court would be the best judge on the issue.

"We will wait. Let us see what the Supreme Court decides," Kumar told DW.

Experts say the Supreme Court's Tuesday judgment on the NDTV ban would set a benchmark for the freedom of press in India. If the decision goes in favor of the channel, the government would refrain from such actions in the future.