NEW DELHI: Direct intervention by the government in the working of the media has been creeping in, although it took the one day ban on NDTV India to make journalists realise that censorship and control is following a slow but serious pattern.

More recently a one day ban has also been imposed on an Assamese news channel run by a Kolkata based firm, News Time Assam that has been asked to go off air by a Ministry of Information and Broadcasting notice for not blurring a photograph of a child rape victim. This ban has not created ripples in Assam as the offense was clear and the channel not very influential, quite apart from the allegations leveled by the government against the far more powerful Hindi channel of NDTV that has been pursuing an independent line, and thereby standing apart in the bouquet of news channels headquartered in the national capital and Mumbai.

I&B Ministry has opened its hand for the first time since the new government took over with the ban notice for one day on November 9 on NDTV, Despite the strong protest, with all journalistic bodies condemning the move, the government has refused to back off. The ostensible reason used against NDTV India is that it broadcast sensitive information while covering the Pathankot terror attack. This has been disputed in writing by the channel, and also upheld by senior journalists and organisations who had looked at the footage. The channel maintained that the coverage was based on facts and visuals available in the public domain.

Minister Venkiah Naidu, however, has refused to accept either the explanation or recognise the protests by journalists across the country. At Chennai he went on an offensive instead with, remarks maintaining that the opposition to the ban was politically inspired. He cited instances of when the UPA government in its second term had imposed a similar ban on entertainment television channels for showing obscene visuals. He further added, “people of the country are also wise enough to appreciate which of the two violations — showing obscene visuals at the stroke of midnight and risking the lives of defence personnel and civilians through a live telecast of anti-terrorist operations in broad daylight — is a serious threat to the interest of the nation.”

So far similar action has been taken against journalists in Chhatisgarh and television and newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir. Individual scribes reporting from Chhatisgarh have reported threats and intimidation by the state police, with many having to re-locate for fear of their safety. The Editors Guild sent a delegation of senior journalists to Chhatisgarh that established the veracity of these fears, and urged the state government to ensure the safety of all reporters covering the Maoist belt in the state. The BJP is in power in Chhatisgarh

In Jammu and Kashmir, the state government has banned newspapers, sending police into the offices and seizing copies in what the local journalists termed as strong arm tactics. The storm of protest made the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti withdraw the complete ban on publication after three days. However, the management refused to publish the papers until Mufti gave a clear cut assurance that she would not resort to such censorship in the future.

Shortly after, however, local television channels were taken off air by an order of the government. Since these mofussil channels were based in Dubai, the state government used its powers over the cable operators to ensure that these were not telecast in the state.

More recently, again a small newspper with a fairly low circulation Kashmir Reader has been banned. The ban remains in force despite some protests. The BJP is in coalition with the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir.

It might be recalled that Indira Gandhi’s Emergency was followed by attempts by her two well muscled Chief Ministers, of Bihar and Karnataka, Jagannath Mishra and Gundu Rao respectively, to bring the media to heel. This was opposed by journalists with demonstration and marches in Delhi, and the Press Bills sought to be introduced in the states were then withdrawn.

The UPA government in its second term did show less tolerance to a free media, with the proverbial ‘phone calls’ from the top to get a channel to moderate its coverage in favour of the government being credited to various ministers at the time. True or false, this rumour was pervasive, and seemed to be validated by an increasingly ‘disciplined’ pro-government media. However, there was no attempt by the Congress led government to openly intervene in the functioning of the news media, with ‘censorship’ being applied through a carrot and stick policy, based almost entirely on access to corridors of power.

The nuclear deal did result in the top editors of the Asian Age being asked to leave, although this too was done through the owner and not by the government or the Congress party directly.

The ban on NDTV thus is the first since the Emergency. It has come against the background of Chhatisgarh and Jammu and Kashmir as pointed out above. But the atmosphere ensuring some level of freedom for the media has been badly vitiated on the social media by an army of trolls that create a sense of fear and intimidation by abusing and attacking individual journalists. From direct threats of extermination, to abuse and attack these trolls---all incidentally professing to be ‘nationalists’ and supporters of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular--- target journalists for doing little more than their job with reportage and comment that does not necessarily eulogise the government in power. And for doing little more than raising valid questions, seen as uncomfortable by the government in power.

Censorship has thus been insiduous with protests token, if at all. The media has given in

Censorship thus takes several forms. Those who follow the government line and are supportive have:

1. Access to power and to interviews with senior leaders. Those reporters who do not follow the line are denied this access, and the working journalist thus comes under immense pressure from the top bosses to get the information that is clearly being handed out to others;

2. PM Modi does not take reporters abroad with him, but in UPA-2 this facility of travelling with the Prime Minister was reserved only for the compliant scribes. Those who chose to be independent were kept out of briefings and travel. Even the list for banquets hosted by the President of India for visiting dignitaries weeds out scribes who are not known for subservience.

Intervention by corporate owners, at the instance of the government, to ensure the coverage remains favourable. This is done by selectively appointing editors, sacking others who come in the way, and ensuring that not a dog barks in the newsroom without sanction;

4. Police intimidation. Has always been very true of journalists working in the districts, but it has now extended to cover areas like the Maoists belt in Chhatisgarh to ensure that news of human rights violations does not make it to the big media. The police and the authorities, thus, have full freedom to operate here without fear of exposure, and without any accountability;

5. State government bans that have been imposed in Kashmir valley on the ground of ‘nationalism’, with the Chief Minister wielding the stick willingly. More of this might be seen in the future.

Direct censorship, with the ‘token’ one day ban on NDTV with the message that the government expects all channels and media houses to comply or face similar, or worse, action. This is a beginning, with the Information and Broadcasting Minister defending what was till now the indefensible.