On the anniversary of Gandhi’s death this year, GSTV, a Gujarati television channel, made so bold as to broadcast a programme called “Gandhi Hatya Koni Jawabdari (Who is Responsible for the Death of Gandhi)”. It suggested that the government had not done enough to curb the glorification of Nathuram Godse. It also challenged a Certain Leader who “wears a suit worth Rs 9 lakh and moves in expensive cars” but claims to be a staunch Gandhian. No names were named. But according to a report in the Economic Times, it brought upon a notice from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, which claimed that channels have “every right to question political leaders” but told off GSTV for its “deliberate attempt to malign his reputation”. The ministry also noted that the programme could “incite violent tendencies” that would upset the “law and order situation”.

It would be illuminating if the ministry could explain the niceties of “questioning political leaders”, quite different from maliciously attacking their good name. No mentioning bespoke suits, perhaps? And the threat to law and order, one of the “reasonable restrictions” to freedom of speech, has been liberally invoked by governments in the past. Unless these very reasonable doubts are cleared, the notice leaves this overwhelming impression: speak no evil (of the government) if you are a broadcaster and want the I&B ministry to let you be.

Media watch

This impression has gained strength over the last year. As early as last September, Rajya Sabha MP Jaya Bhaduri had objected to radio jockeys lampooning politicians. Then I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar rushed in to clarify that the government didn’t mind being laughed at, but if the language or humour got a bit ripe, beware the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre. In August, the I&B ministry sent out notices to three TV channels, asking them to give an account of their coverage of the Yakub Memon case. Its complaint: the channels had contributed to the “denigration of the judiciary” and, that old favourite, the threat to law and order. Last week, the ministry sent a notice to Sathiyam TV, a Tamil channel, for “political remarks” against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

I&B who?

The I&B ministry seems to be undeterred by the fact that it has, at best, a tenuous mandate to regulate TV channels. The broadcasting industry, which has long insisted on self-regulation, set up two independent bodies to do the job: the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, and Broadcasting Content Complaints Council. In its stentorian notices to TV channels, the ministry has repeatedly by-passed these bodies.

Some measure of control may be available to the ministry under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, which gives it the power to grant licenses to broadcasting agencies. The rules that are to be read along with the act contain a Programme Code, or a set of guidelines. But the clauses of the code are subject to interpretation and compliance by the agencies concerned is voluntary, according to some expert opinion.

 Shiny, happy people

No matter. Since the National Democratic Alliance came to power last year, the I&B ministry has made visible incursions into all forms of media, from the big TV channels to the low-key community radio stations. A government order on April 30 directed these stations to “provide recordings of all programs broadcast by CRS on a daily basis from the date of receipt of this letter along with log books/Q sheet…”. Since coming to power, the I&B ministry has also spent its energies on strengthening its own watchdog, the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre.

This is an acutely image conscious government, which prides itself on its communication skills. Its prime minister speaks his “Mann ki baat” directly to people and big ticket media campaigns are used to publicise its various programmes, such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. So it makes no bones about the facts that it wants to control the message that goes out to the public and the discourse around itself.

Dissent will survive, even if pushed underground. But a negative campaign to suppress criticism can only damage the image the government has so carefully crafted. It projects a weak, insecure administration that only wants to talk at the people it governs and refuses to listen, especially when it doesn’t like what it hears.