In a clear attempt to save face by muzzling the media, the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party Government in Uttar Pradesh recently blacked out some television new channels to prevent them from covering its lavish Saifai Mahotsav.
English news channel Times Now and Hindi news channel India News were unplugged by cable operators in the wake of the Mahotsav, which was attended by a number of top Bollywood stars. The entire media fraternity had criticised the arrangement of the annual event keeping in view the Muzaffarnagar riots and the continuing plight of the victims.
As is known, communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar and neighbouring Shamli and Meerut in September last year had left 63 dead and thousands homeless. The Akhilesh Government had rehabilitated the victims in dingy camps and temporary settlements, without any monetary compensation. According to media reports, the Government had also allegedly forced the victims not to return to their homes.
The conditions worsened for the victims as the winter season approached. The media highlighted the growing plight of the victims, especially children, who had to bear the dip in temperatures in the open. It was brought to the notice of the country how children were dying due to extreme cold conditions in the camps, watched helplessly by their parents, who are now unemployed and at the mercy of the State Government.
Nonetheless, even as 30 children died in the camps, the Samajwadi Party leaders failed to take proper action on the ground to help the victims. In fact, the State Government went as far as to even deny the deaths, even when the Supreme Court took suo motu cognizance of the loss of lives.
The insensitivity of the State Government was evident when the media exposed how the Akhilesh Government sanctioned almost Rs 1 crore for a five-nation “study tour” of a team of its ministers even as the riot victims languished in the camps and struggled for survival.
The tour was led by UP Urban Development Minister Azam Khan, in charge of the Muzaffarnagar district, where thousands of the victims are still in temporary shelters without enough warm clothing or facilities.
Despite being slammed for dismal handling of the situation, the UP Government organised the Saifai Mohotsav with pomp and show. The Government allegedly spent Rs 7 crore on the organisation of the annual festival, held every year in the memory of a late nephew of SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. It is a fortnight-long annual carnival, which has become a major attraction for people of the region, including Etawah, Mainpuri, Firozabad, Shikohabad and Agra.
The State Government tried hard to save its face despite criticism of the Mahotsav, one of which was to gag the media. Accusing the media of “selectively targeting his Government”, the UP Chief Minister asked the media to apologise to the party. “Media houses are becoming a part of the conspiracy against the Samajwadi Party. This is despite our best efforts to provide relief to riot victims,” he had said.
When these attempts failed, the Government banned the channels that had highlighted the manner in which the Government had evicted riot victims from relief camps, while at the same time making elaborate arrangements to ensure the success of Saifai Mahotsav. These included chopper services to VVIPs, special police protection, fare and fuel expenses as well as fees of top Bollywood and television stars.
Ambika Prasad Ojha, President, Cable Service Consumer Protection Committee, had told the media, “The telecast of Times Now and India News has been stopped across UP because the CM got offended by their negative coverage of the Saifai Mahotsav.”
Certain cable operators even confessed that they were acting on an informal Government order. A cable operator, requesting anonymity, had told The Times of India that the two channels were blocked following phone calls from “higher-ups”. Similar phone calls went to operators in other UP cities as well, he had said. The channels, however, were available on direct-to-home or DTH platforms, over which the State Government does not have any special influence.
The action of the State Government shook the media industry. Arnab Goswami, Editor, Times Now had said, “I have received reports that Times Now has gone off air across several parts of UP, including Lucknow and Ghaziabad. The cable operators have not given any specific reason for the blackout. We have also asked the Akhilesh Yadav Government to investigate the reason behind the sudden and unexpected blackout.”
Even the Central Government promised to take action. Minister for Information and Broadcasting Manish Tewari said, “The ban is reprehensible and uncalled for. We will take action if the channel complains to us. The complaint will be considered on merit, and if any illegality is found, we will take strict action against the erring MSOs (multi-system operators).”
The Samajwadi Party Government claimed that it was a technical glitch and not a targeted strike against its critics. However, the incident raises the question – why should the media be punished for the fault of a ruling party? This is also a clear case of government interference with the independence of the Fourth Estate of the country. Even as the Akhilesh Government reversed its decision, the action is a blot on democracy, which ensures the right to freedom of expression.
To avoid a wave of critical reporting, no government can exercise its powers and take a television channel off air. This behind-the-scene muzzling of the media only exposes the government’s own insecurity and an indirect admission of wrongdoing. But what this also exposes is the lack of rules when it comes to face-offs between politicians and the media. The media, especially, social media, has become a platform for the learned to express their views, even if they do not toe the line of the government. This does not mean that such platforms can be erased. Or cable operators be bullied to take channels off air.
This incident only serves as a warning that media in this democratic country is still taken for granted and is yet to achieve the absolute freedom that the Constitution empowers it with.