Battle lines appear to be drawn between the government and the media even as the Supreme Court readies to hear NDTV’s petition challenging the one-day ban on NDTV India for allegedly revealing strategically significant information during the militant strike on the Pathankot airbase in January.

On Monday, media persons gathered at the New Delhi Press Club in a show of solidarity with the channel and passed a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of the offending government order.

But across the road in Shastri Bhawan, Information and Broadcasting minister Venkaiah Naidu defended the government order on grounds that the channel was airing "terror activities with running commentary".

By late evening, however, the ministry had done a complete U-turn and put the ban on hold.

Back in the NDTV India newsroom in South Delhi’s upmarket Archana Complex, it is seemingly business as usual. But scratch the surface and there are worries. How does one cover "national security" under this government?

An editor summed it all up. "From police to army to the government to the prime minister, criticising any of these is being seen by the government as infraction of national security," said the editor on condition of anonymity.

Efforts are underway to rejig some beats, especially those relating to politics and security. However, nothing is final for now. But there is a consensus in the newsroom that the action is a witch-hunt.

Even so a message has been sent out by the senior editors: exercise caution while reporting national security issues. At a newsroom meeting on Friday, presided over by NDTV India’s senior managing editor, reporters and anchors were told to exercise editorial caution while reporting national security: “The government is out to get us. So please be very careful.”

For the record, though, a senior journalist said that such notices had been routine even under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. NDTV India received "at least around 30-odd notices" after November 26, 2008, when terrorists attacked several targets in Mumbai, said the journalist. But at that time, the network gave its explanation and the matter ended there.

Never was such a drastic action initiated.

Modi and Lutyens Delhi

Modi’s battle is not with NDTV as such. It is with the Congress party and its alleged mouthpieces – English language media working out of Delhi that Modi pejoratively terms “Lutyens Delhi” – perceived as being hostile and unfair in perpetuity to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Modi’s, by now well-known, distaste for NDTV can be traced back to the network’s alleged “hostile” coverage of the 2002 riots. In an interview to Manushi Editor Madhu Kishwar in 2014 just before the general elections, Modi came dangerously close to blaming two news reporters – Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai – for the 2002 riots.

“First 72 hours the riots were under control,” Modi told Kishwar. “Later, what happened, some of the incidents were sensationalised [by the reporters].”

Modi especially singled out Dutt’s reportage from Surat and Sardesai’s from Anjar, from where he had reported the destruction of a temple by arsonists. In her live reports from Surat, Dutt repeatedly said that while the city had remained peaceful, there could be trouble as there was no police presence. “I called her and pulled her up – are you inviting arsonists to Surat?” Modi told Kishwar. "That was the day I banned the TV channel." (Dutt later clarified that she had never actually been to Surat.)

Things were never quite the same with either Datt or Sardesai thereafter.

While NDTV was the only network that never got a sit-down interview with Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the run-up to the general elections, Sardesai fared a little better as head of CNN-IBN. He got an interview in 2012 when Modi was contesting Assembly elections but with the chief minister sitting next to the driver and Sardesai sitting on the footboard of the vehicle being used for the election campaign. In his book, 2014, The Election that Changed India, Sardesai recalled that this was Modi’s “characteristically perverse way of reminding me of my station in life as humble journalist...”.

A former Aaj Tak reporter, who stayed in Gujarat for nearly three months to cover the riots and its aftermath, admitted that his network was equally sensational. He especially remembered reporting heart-rending stories from the Shah Alam camp including stories of rape and horrific killing of Muslims by the rioters. On one particular day, there were at least three senior anchors who were reporting live from the camp with chilling stories of riot-affected men, women and children. It is not that these stories had “no incendiary potential”. The reportage comprised interviews of victims that were played out through the day that was watched by more people in Gujarat than Star News. Yet Modi has not seemed aggrieved with any of the Hindi networks.

Why target NDTV India?

While Modi has expressed his problem with English language news outfits, both electronic and print, the case of NDTV India – a Hindi channel – is particularly curious since it was only launched in 2003, after the 2002 Gujarat violence. But it has been facing boycott by BJP spokespersons for several months, triggered by the network’s decision to criticise the government’s handling of the Jawaharlal Nehru University crisis early this year.

But NDTV India has soldiered on regardless. In the recent past it has:

  1. Covered the disruption of Amit Shah’s rally by Patidars.
  2. Covered the Dalit rally from Una to Ahmedabad.
  3. Profiled the Gujarati Dalit leader Jignesh Mawani.
  4. Covered Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal’s rally in Gujarat

This assumes significance when the national electronic media, almost as rule, has stopped covering any event that occurs in the prime minister’s home state.

In February, when prime time anchor Ravish Kumar decided to black out the screen even as he articulated a powerful lament about news anchors turning into rabble rousers, BJP spokesperson Sanjay Kaul launched a stinging attack on Kumar’s oratory as representing “torridly pompous” and “self-indulgent” journalism. There were no disclaimers about his views being personal.

In fact, within NDTV some of the senior editors feel that the Modi-Shah duo are trying to put sections of the media, seen to be independent, on the back-foot before the all important Assembly elections next year.

The NDTV group has been facing a slew of assorted charges by the government. In June, the Securities and Exchange Board of India issued show cause notice to NDTV for alleged violation of takeover norms.

Last December, the Enforcement Directorate had issued a show cause notice, alleging foreign exchange violations to the tune of Rs 2,030 crore under the Foreign Exchange Maintenance Act.

Both the cases are currently being contested by NDTV.

Be it editorial infractions that jeopardise “national security” or financial impropriety, the laws of the land, needless to say, should apply. But the timing of the multi-pronged attack on one single network under the guise of national security is a cause for concern.

This battle is a crucial one and the media’s collective response will determine the terms of engagement between the media and the government before the all important Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat elections next year.

In this sense the Supreme Court’s ruling will be keenly watched – both by the government and the media.