On Friday evening, the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry imposed a 48-hour telecast ban on two Malayalam news channels, Asianet News and Media One TV. The ministry’s order said they had violated the government’s programme code and advisories while reporting the communal violence that rocked Delhi two weeks ago.

Both the channels were held guilty of producing coverage that was biased towards one community. The order banning Media One said it was “critical of the Delhi Police and RSS” – a reference to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Media One TV released a statement on Friday condemning the telecast ban and said it would deal with the orders legally.

On Saturday morning, however, both the channels were back on television screens, indicating that the ban had been withdrawn. It is unclear what led to the revocation of orders. The News Minute reported that Asianet News, which is owned by BJP Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Chandrashekar’s Jupiter Entertainment Ventures made a representation to the I&B ministry, while Media One did not. Asianet News was back on air at 1.30 am, while Media One’s telecast was restored at 9.30 am on Saturday.

This article explains why the original orders that took the two news channels off air were blatantly illegal. Their curious reversal within hours further strengthens the suspicion that they were aimed at muzzling the news media and forcing it to toe the government’s line.

Programme code violations

Both the orders speak of two violations in particular, derived from the arbitrary Cable Television Network Rules, which provide the Centre with sweeping powers to censor television content.

According to the ministry, the news reports went against Section 6 (1) (c), which prohibits any programme that “contains attack on religions or communities or visuals or words contemptuous of religious groups or which promote communal attitudes.” Also allegedly violated was Section 6 (1) (e) of the rules, which disallows content “likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which promote anti-national attitudes.”

How did the ministry arrive at the conclusion the two news channels violated these provisions?

In the case of Asianet News, the order pointed to a news report aired at 6.58 pm on February 25. The news report said, among other things, that the Delhi Police was a mute spectator as riots ravaged the city; armed rioters were attacking people after asking what their religion was; houses and mosques were burnt; rioters shot at each other; and there was long delay in central forces reaching the riot-hit areas, presumably because of a meeting held by Union Home Minister Amit Shah.

The ministry order accused the channel of telecasting reports on North-East Delhi violence that “had been shown in a manner which highlighted the attack on places of worship and siding towards a particular community.”

In response to the show cause notice issued by the ministry on March 3, Asianet News responded by disputing the ministry’s claims of biased reporting. It said the channel’s reporters had acted with restraint and responsibility, citing many examples from its reporting as well as the channel’s long reputation as being a responsible media house. Notwithstanding the explanations, the channel also offered an unconditional apology if the ministry felt it had made a mistake.

The ministry rejected the explanation and apology and said that it was “abundantly clear that the channel has not adhered to the programme codes and has shown irresponsibility by not fully complying to them.” A telecast ban was then imposed.

As far as Media One TV was concerned, the charges were even more staggering. Echoing the allegations made against Asianet, the ministry order said that in programmes aired at 6.10 pm on February 25 and 12.30 am on February 26, the “violence had been shown in a manner which highlighted the attack on places of worship and siding towards a particular community.”

The channel’s reporting on Delhi violence, the order said, was biased as it is “deliberately focused on the vandalism of CAA supporters” – a reference to the Hindutva groups that took to the streets to oppose those protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. “It also questions RSS and alleges Delhi Police inaction. Channel seems to be critical towards Delhi Police and RSS,” the order stated.

In response to the show cause notice on March 3, Media One TV said the order was wrong on facts and that at 12.30 am on February 26, the channel was actually airing an advertisement. It said the allegations made by the ministry were “arbitrary and unreasonable” and what was reported by the channel was a matter of record with evidence in the form of videos. Similar reports had been produced by other media organisations and journalists. Media One TV also said the ministry had conveniently ignored the channel’s reporting on the measures being taken by the government to bring the violence under control.

Media One TV added that the show cause notice which gave just 48 hours for the channel to reply was in violation of natural justice and due process. It asked the ministry to conduct a proper hearing as the charges involved consideration of a lot of evidence.

The ministry rejected the response and issued a ban order, parts of which was identical to the one found in the Asianet News order.

Illegal and arbitrary

First and foremost, the ministry seems to have been in a hurry to issue the ban. It gave the channels just 48 hours to respond. The notice was issued on March 3 and the channels were asked to respond by March 5. A day later on March 6, the responses were rejected and the ban was issued.

The timing was also curious. The orders came on a Friday evening, when the High Courts and the Supreme Court shut for the week. In fact, the Supreme Court has taken a week’s break starting Monday for the festival of Holi. Thus, the orders seem to have been timed to ensure normal legal action could not have been initiated before the telecast ban took effect.

The improper nature of the process apart, the orders themselves are illegal and arbitrary. The coverage of the two news channels that the government took objection to is no different from what many other television channels, newspapers and digital news sites have reported. Why did the ministry decide to act against two Malayalam channels which actually have very little viewership in Delhi?

The ministry’s orders did not question the veracity of the reports. They only produced a subjective and arbitrary analysis of the reports before labelling them as biased. The orders showed no evidence that the reports of the news channels led to an intensification of the violence.

More specifically, the objection taken to the criticism of the Delhi Police is unwarranted: that the violence continued for three days shows the police was unable to control it. In countless reports, including in Scroll.in, both Hindu and Muslim residents have complained of police inaction. There is mounting evidence of police failure in the form of victim accounts, photos and videos.

The worst of the charges was that the coverage of Media One TV was critical of the RSS, the ideological parent of the ruling BJP. This charge exposes the politically partisan nature of the orders: Why should the government be bothered about the criticism of a non-governmental organisation?

Reversal and signalling

But what is inexplicable is the withdrawal of the telecast ban hours after it was imposed. There are some serious questions that need answers.

The ministry did not accept an unconditional apology tendered by Asianet News in its response to the show cause notice. If this is so, what measures did the channel adopt in a matter of hours that convinced the ministry to lift the ban?

Media One TV, on the other hand, did not even issue an apology. Given its public stand that it would legally contest the order, there is no scope to believe that it approached the ministry with an explanation that changed the ministry’s opinion on its reportage. It is safe to assume that the ban on Media One TV was lifted as it would be impossible to sustain the ban on one channel while it was reversed for the other.

All this leads to the next question: What was the purpose of the order? Was it really attempt by the ministry to ensure channels adhered to norms or was it a signal to the media in general that criticism of the government, its institutions like the police and its ideological mentors will not be tolerated?

The Modi government seems to want to create a chilling effect on the news media at large, which is a blatant violation of the fundamental right to speech and expression into which the freedom of the media is enshrined in the Constitution.