Arshad Shaikh critically examines the ban on the Kerala-based Malayalam news channel MediaOne and its implications on media freedom, democracy and the trajectory of our nation.

The North-East Delhi riots of 2020 effectively demolished the perception of equal security for all citizens under the law. Lawlessness was allowed to prevail as mobs rampaged and targeted members of a particular community at will, almost as if they had the sanction of the state. All this to happen in the capital of the country, where the maintenance of law and order is directly under the Central Government was something hard to digest given the current rhetoric of “Shasakt-Bharat” (empowered India)  and “vikas” (development) with “sab ka saath” (for all).

Another unanticipated development took place as the riots ravaged our capital. Two TV channels faced a 48-hour blackout by the government. They were off-air for a full two days. One of them, the Madhyamam Broadcasting Ltd owned Malayalam TV channel – MediaOne has now been banned. Its 10-year licence to operate was to expire in September 2021. Even as MediaOne applied for renewal, the Ministry for Home Affairs (MHA) denied security clearance in December 2021 and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) rejected the application for renewal of licence. MediaOne challenged the ban and the matter is now pending before the judiciary. Banning a popular TV channel that built its reputation on being the ‘voice of the unheard’ on ‘security grounds’ is deeply unsettling and a blow to media freedom. The ban is a virtual assault on democracy and mandates serious introspection given the channel’s ownership lies with the country’s Muslim minority community.

THE CHAIN OF EVENTS

When MediaOne was banned earlier for 48 hours, the MIB accused it by saying: “The channel’s reporting on Delhi violence seems to be biased as it is deliberately focusing on the vandalism of CAA supporters. It also questions the RSS and alleges Delhi police inaction. The channel seems to be critical towards the Delhi police and the RSS”.

Further, it was blamed for highlighting “the attack on places of worship and siding towards a particular community”. Anybody interested in understanding if MediaOne’s coverage was biased or based on facts should read the findings of the 10-member committee of Delhi Minorities Commission and that of Amnesty International about the Delhi riots of February 2020. MediaOne is listed as a private satellite TV channel under the news category. It received a 10-year licence in 2011. The channel was launched at an impressive function at the hands of former Defence Minister AK Antony on 10 February 2013.

MediaOne is one of the most popular Malayalam news channels of Kerala and its reporters have won various awards including RedInk and Ramnath Goenka awards. MediaOne began the application process for renewal of licence a few months before it was set to expire in September 2021. According to the MIB, every channel needs to get a security licence from the MHA both at the time of launch and renewal of licence. Once the MHA denied security clearance, the MIB took the necessary steps to stop MediaOne from continuing its broadcast.

The channel’s parent company immediately sought relief from the Kerala High Court on the grounds of violation of fundamental rights and breach of principles of natural justice. However, Justice Nagaresh of the Kerala HC upheld the ban saying: “Based on the inputs from various intelligence agencies, the MHA had formed a committee of officers, which found that the security clearance for the channel should not be renewed. The MHA also considered the entire facts and decided to accept the recommendations of the committee of officers. I find that there are inputs, which justify the decision of the MHA. Therefore, I propose to dismiss the petition.” MediaOne is left with no other option except to challenge the order in the apex court.

BROAD CRITICISM

The ban on MediaOne invited vociferous criticism from a broad spectrum of society, including the Malayali diaspora. Supreme Court lawyer, Prashant Bhushan commented that the new trend of delivering judgments based on “sealed envelopes” is the death warrant of free media. He was referring to the use of confidentiality by the MHA as it submitted its response to the Kerala High Court in a “sealed cover” without providing a copy of it to the management of MediaOne.

Former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu N. Ram said the ban on MediaOne was an “assault on the fundamental right of citizen’s free speech and liberty”. A group of prominent MPs, journalists and activists, in a signed statement protesting the ban, said: “This goes against the basic principles of natural justice, which mandate that material evidence in any adjudication process, and especially in a matter concerning fundamental rights, must be shared with both parties to the dispute. The court failed in its bounden duty as a constitutional court by not providing the reasons behind its judgment, and instead of reiterating the line of the MHA regarding ‘Intelligence inputs’ and ‘national security concerns’.

TROUBLING QUESTIONS

The government’s position is that the principles of natural justice have to take a backseat when it comes to issues such as defence and national security. The court agreed with the government that there were intelligence inputs that were strong enough to deny security clearance. These inputs are yet to be disclosed to the aggrieved party. They were shown to the judge in a sealed envelope.

As the editorial in the Hindu (dated 11 February) points out, “The court’s decision goes against emerging jurisprudence that any restriction on fundamental rights must not only be reasonable as permitted in the Constitution, but also withstand the test of proportionality. In this case, broadcasting involves the inter-connected rights concerning media freedom, freedom to disseminate information and the freedom to consume information. All these fall under the framework of freedom of speech and expression. The court seems to have accepted the restriction without examining its reasonableness in any way. It has negated not only the channel’s right to broadcast but also its viewers’ right to know. If this practice of using confidential intelligence claims to revoke the permission given to a channel to operate is encouraged, freedom of the media will be in great peril.”

The ban on MediaOne raises many troubling questions. Can the fundamental rights of citizens and the principles of natural justice be crushed by the arms of the state namely the government and the judiciary under any pretext? Won’t the allowance to the state to curb media in this manner set a precedent to crack down on other outlets and publications that are critical of the narrative that suits the government and its political leadership? Isn’t the ban an intimidating signal to the media fraternity and news organisations to toe the official version of things and refrain from exposing the harsh realities of oppression and coercion that have become so rampant in our country?

India secured a rank of 142 among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2021. Talking about the state of media-freedom in the Asia Pacific region, the report says: “Instead of drafting new repressive laws in order to impose censorship, several of the region’s countries have contented themselves with strictly applying existing legislation that was already very draconian – laws on sedition, state secrets and national security.”

If the ban on MediaOne is not withdrawn, India is bound to slide further in the Press Freedom Index and that will not bode well for our citizens and our democracy.

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