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Evaluation of one day ban on NDTV (Relevant for GS Mains Paper II, Topic: Freedom of Press)

Invoking of Cable Television Networks (Amendment) Rules, 2015
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry’s 24-hour ban on the television channel NDTV India over its Pathankot coverage is being seen as an attempt to muzzle inconvenient live reportage. 

The Ministry has invoked the Cable Television Networks (Amendment) Rules, 2015, on the ground that the channel broadcast “crucial information” which compromised national security. 

These rules prohibit “live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces” and restrict media coverage to “periodic briefing” by a designated officer “till such operation concludes”. It is not clear if the channel's impugned broadcast was 'live coverage' or just 'reportage'.

Power given to Ministry
The Ministry’s ban flows from its power under Section 20 of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act. The provision empowers the Central government to “regulate or prohibit the transmission or re-transmission of any channel or programme” if it is necessary or expedient to do so “in the interest of the sovereignty, integrity or security of India, friendly relations with any foreign State or public order, decency or morality.” These clauses are a replica of the reasonable restrictions to free speech under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. The legislative intent was obviously to only sanction action within the constitutional framework and as a last resort.

Points to ponder
The right of the media to report news as it happens is constitutionally guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. This extends to viewers and readers who have a right to know. Of course, it is hemmed in with “reasonable restrictions”. 

1. Is the ban a reasonable restriction on this fundamental right?

2. How did the channel's coverage undermine the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, which are the relevant constitutionally permissible restrictions on free speech? 

3. Who determines what constitutes a breach of national security? 

Relevant judgements to the above context
The scope of reasonable restrictions was examined by the Supreme Court in S. Rangarajan v. P. Jagjivan Ram . It noted that “the anticipated danger should not be remote, conjectural or far-fetched.” In Chintaman Rao v. State of Madhya Pradesh , the apex court had held that “reasonable restrictions” must not be “arbitrary” or “excessive”.

The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act must not be trivialised to operate like a stick in the hands of a headmaster to rein in disobedient schoolchildren! The moot point here is whether the impugned content fell within the constitutional test of “clear and present danger”. If the information was already in the public domain, as the channel argues, what is the mechanism adopted by the committee that recommended the ban, to zero in on NDTV alone? 

Action tainted with mala fide intent is liable to be struck down on grounds of discrimination and malice as it would fall foul of Article 14. To shut down a news channel for a whole day to ostensibly “set an example” creates a dangerous precedent.



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