NEW DELHI: Independent journalism, under attack for years perhaps, is facing its most serious challenge since the Emergency now.

The fig leaf provided by an army of trolls threatening independent journalists with violence and abuse, has been discarded completely by the government of India with an open order to ban the broadcast of NDTV India for a day on November 9.

This, as senior journalist who has been editor of several newspapers including the Statesman and Indian Express Nihal Singh said, is “unprecedented and reflects a trend apparent for some time, the closing down of free media.” Singh joined the editors in denouncing the move by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to muzzle a channel for its reporting on the Pathankot terror attack. As Singh told The Citizen, “the alleged provocation by NDTV India is to my mind no provocation at all.”

NDTV had responded to a show cause notice sent to it earlier by an inter-ministerial committee set up to look at its coverage, making it very clear that it had not reported a single fact that was not in the public domain and had been covered by newspapers and other sections of the media.

The Editors Guild, a representative body of print, television and online media, has taken up the issue directly in a statement this morning where it condemned the decision and made it very clear that it was in “direct violation of the freedom of the media and therefore the citizens of India and amounts to harsh censorship imposed by the government reminiscent of the Emergency.”

It further states, “this first-of-its-kind order to impose a blackout has seen the Central government entrust itself with the power to intervene in the functioning of the media and take arbitrary punitive action as and when it does not agree with the coverage.” And calls for an “immediate withdrawal of the ban order.”

Independent voices in the media, although increasingly scattered, have been under tremendous attack with the order issued by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to NDTV India banning it from broadcasting on November 9 for an entire day being indicative of the pressure that journalists and media houses are being subjected to. The abuse and the threats against individual journalists on the social media has been on the rise, with most of the twitters claiming allegiance to the Prime Minister and the BJP.

The move against NDTV India is the first open attack on the freedom of the media by the government. It has come on the issue of ‘nationalism’ as expected -- with Pathankot terror attacks forming the backdrop to the direct move to muzzle freedom, and actually suspend the broadcast of a channel. As senior editors pointed out, this was not just reminiscent of the Emergency but much worse as in targeting one particular channel, the government had given to itself the right to discriminate between media organisations, using a hard stick on those it felt were going out of line. As Nihal Singh pointed out, during the Emergency censorship applied to all and not the one, saying, “I do not remember anything like this then.”

NDTV India, the Hindi channel of the group, has been taking a fairly independent positions on most issues and often raising questions. Despite the limitations imposed by muscle flexing tactics that are well known in the industry, the channel was able to find the answers in a more subtle approach that allowed space for fairly independent journalism. Anchor Ravish Kumar is seen as particularly forthright, and has become the target for those seeing ‘nationalism’ in a controlled, censored and often craven press.

It is in this context that the resignation of Times Now anchor Arnab Goswami is significant. The bar of journalistic ethics had been pulled to almost the bottom rung of the scale, with the channel touting a black and white policy where opponents to the editorial line set out for the evening were shouted at by the anchor, with mikes being muted if they insisted on speaking their mind. War, and “nationalism” became the bottom line of evening shows with the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party ---- both on the receiving end --- virtually boycotting the channel.

Times Now should be under pressure now to climb the ladder of ethics and responsibilities, with News Hour last evening being a little more sober than usual. In that opposition views were allowed a voice, even on a subject like Jawaharlal Nehru University that has usually inspired slanging matches on the channel in the past. The visuals to the debate actually showed the crying mother of the missing student Najeeb, and the opposition leaders speaking at the University, without inviting a hostile tirade from the anchor.

If Times Now recovers some of the lost ground where, despite the TRP ratings, it was becoming a pariah amongst large sections of political and civil society, it would raise the bar to a point where other channels will not feel so pressured to take extreme positions. This could help to restore debate and discussion at prime time, without those with differing views having to walk off mid way, or enduring provocative slurs through the course of the evening. And while the expectations are certainly not high, at least the restoration of basic decorum in television discussions can only be a plus in today’s environment.

The almost unanimous response by journalists against the ban order on NDTV India is encouraging, as it indicates that the awareness of the pitfalls of such a measure is not dead. And that journalists realise that the one day, the ban will open the way to more stringent government measures against offending media houses and journalists in the future, leading to the destruction of media freedom altogether. The working journalist knows that her/his freedom to report has been vastly curbed by the organisation under corporate and political pressure. But the ban order crosses the line as it moves into the realm of direct governmental intervention in the working of the media.

The Indian media is gasping for breath. And fortunately even the most compromised editor has realised that unless the ban on NDTV is withdrawn, the media will be rendered completely lifeless sooner than later.