The advisory issued by the I&B Ministry in October, its subsequent defence by the Minister and ban on opinion polls has now taken a new turn. The Government is planning to boycott TV debates citing that they are “unscientific”.
Recent opinion polls on TV have shown ruling UPA witnessing bad performance in the upcoming elections in four states, viz: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Chhattisgarh. The Government had requested EC to ban all opinion polls.
In addition, Manish Tewari, in a recent interaction with the media, defended the advisory issued by the Ministry of I&B against news channels. The Ministry had pulled up TV channels for “artificially comparing” the PM’s speech on August 15 with that of Narendra Modi’s which was delivered around the same time.
The advisory said that it was a “highly objectionable” move to denigrate the image of the PM who was the leader of the country. The note warned that action would be taken against the program code of the Cable Network Act if TV channels failed to pay heed.
The chain of events initiated by the Government against the media again invited intense criticism from the media and news fraternity. Broadcasters and media critics feel that these initiatives are attempts by the ruling Government to curtail the impact news channels are having on the public sentiment.
Mohan Nair, CEO, Matrubhumi News said, “It is not fair for the Government to tell channels on how to air and how not to. If the speech of any politician gets tampered with, in that case one may call it unethical journalism; but in this scenario, speeches were compared post the conclusion. This is democracy. The Government is troubled with the sudden negative vibe fostered against them, and this is all happening to counter that.”
The Ministry in the advisory had referred to the CTNR laws, 1995 stating, “As per Section 5 of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 read with Rule 6(1)(a) & (i) of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, as amended from time to time, no programme can be transmitted/retransmitted on any Cable Service which contains anything offends against good taste or decency; and criticises, maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country.”
Responding to it, Nair said, “What is the definition of slander? Making a comparison of speeches is not slander.”
Major news channels opposed the advisory from the Ministry and media critics lambasted the Government over the attempt.
Media critics we spoke to shared that such efforts are a waste. Most news channels expressed their discomfort about the advisory and the ban of opinion polls by conducting debates over the issue on their screens and putting their support against the Government. The opposition, on the other hand, which also at times has grilled media over its role, has stood by the media this time. Experts though cite this development as a political stunt to capitalise the opportunity.
Many journalists have also expressed their disappointment over the issue either through their blogs or on micro blogging site Twitter.
John Thomas, Former Head, National News Services, The Statesman and The Deccan Herald, and Former News Editor of Reuters and AFP said, “The Government feeling uneasy about the adverse media coverage it is getting is understandable. The chief spokesman of the Congress party having to eat his words about an ordinance that the Government put up after due consideration by the party core group and the union cabinet, because the party vice president chooses to rubbish it abruptly at the Delhi Press Club last month, started the media free-for-all that the Government is upset about currently. That episode put the Government and the Congress into the vortex of a credibility crisis and confused the media, even those who were supportive of the Congress and the Government, about whom to believe and what to believe”.
He further added, “When opinion polls come out projecting a poor showing for the UPA allies, it becomes a credibility crisis that the Government has to battle, much to its great embarrassment. It is in this context that the Union I&B Minister is asking that journalists show respect for Government institutions and functionaries and cautioning the media of action if it crossed the bounds. While the Government’s embarrassment is understandable, it is not for independent media in a democracy to worry about upsetting politicians and political parties, as long as what is being broadcast and published is the truth.”
Although the Ministry has repeatedly said that there is no intention to curb the power of the press, the media fraternity is unhappy over the way it has been made scapegoat in the entire situation. Experts feel that shooting the messenger has become a casual way for the UPA to mould the situation, and this is not a good sign in a robust democracy like India. There is a sentiment that the Government is asking the media to show consideration towards them, which is unfair.