On Saturday afternoon, a group of journalists, under the banner of Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ) demonstrated at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, protesting against the Centre’s ban on two leading Malayalam news channels. The channels were banned for their reportage during the Delhi violence in 2020, the reason given was that they could “enhance communal disharmony” across the country.
Though the Centre lifted the 48-hour ban imposed on Asianet News and Media One on Friday in the early hours of Saturday, journalists came together to defend press freedom.
Addressing the gathering, M.A. Baby, politburo member of Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: “The riot that claimed the lives of over 50 people reminds one of the Emergency. In the north-east area of the national capital, many had been killed due to the negligence of centre. Their bodies were recovered from drains in that area. The media houses who tried to report these issues were banned for 48 hours.”
Though the ban targeted two media houses, Baby said that it was a “threat to all media houses and judiciary”. The Delhi High Court itself criticised the police, and reports on the role of the police and the Hindutva mob irked the anger of the centre, Baby added.
The channels were initially suspended for 48 hours over their coverage of last month's communal violence in Delhi, with official orders saying they covered events on February 25 in a manner that “highlighted the attack on places of worship and siding towards a particular community.”
Read more: Media Today: Freedom of the Press or Freedom of the Purse?
“Channels reporting on Delhi violence seems to be biased as it is deliberately focusing on the vandalism of CAA supporters,” the ministry order said on Media One. “It also questions RSS and alleges Delhi Police inaction. Channel seems to be critical towards Delhi Police and RSS.” The Rashtreya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is in power at the Centre.
The ministry ordered prohibition of transmission or re-transmission of Media One and Asianet News for 48 hours on any platform throughout India, with effect from 7:30 p.m. on Friday to 7:30 p.m. on Sunday.
The ban on Asianet News was lifted at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday while the ban on Media One was lifted at 9:30 a.m. on the same day, a source at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting told PTI. Sources said the two channels had written to the Ministry seeking revocation of the bans, following which it was lifted.
Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Prakash Javadekar, said on Saturday that the Centre had lifted the 48-hour ban on two Malayalam news channels and added that the Narendra Modi government supports freedom of the press.
Speaking to reporters in Pune, Javadekar said that he would look into the matter and issue orders if necessary. He also said the Prime Minister has expressed concern over the entire issue.
However, recounting the Centre’s actions, Baby said that the Government is trying to resort to fascistic efforts and “what had happened during the Emergency is happening now.”
Annie Raja, national council member of the Communist Party of India addressed the protesters and said: “The freedom of the Fourth estate should be conserved and we, our party, and all the masses who believe in democracy will stand with the media.”
Journalists’ union, the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), also stood in solidarity with the KUWJ protest. Sujata Madhok of DUJ said the organisation stands in solidarity with Asianet News and Media One. S.K. Pandey of DUJ said that “this is a new era of undeclared emergency and the ban is an effort to terrorise the press.”
Media One, one of the leading news channels in Malayalam is owned by Madhyamam Broadcasting Limited with the financial backing of Jamaat-e-Islami. Asianet News, which is the part of Asianet News Network, operates as a subsidiary of Jupiter Entertainment Ventures under the indirect control of BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrashekar.
Read more: Journalists Protest Against Kanojia’s Arrest, Demand Scrapping of Criminal Defamation Law
Following the ban on the channels, many, including the Chief Minister of Kerala along with other political leaders and journalists have spoken against the arbitrary action of the Centre. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan came down heavily on the BJP-led Central Government for imposing the ban saying an “undeclared emergency” was prevailing in the country.
Terming the ban a “dangerous trend”, the CM said it was an indication of the coming danger. “The centre has made an infringement into the freedom of the press, crossing all limits. There is a threat that if anybody criticises RSS and Sangh Parivar, they will be taught a lesson,” Vijayan said in a statement.
Saying that one of the reasons for the ban was criticism of RSS and the Delhi police by the channels, he added no one is beyond it. “How can it be illegal to criticise RSS? The Constitution guarantees the right of any citizen to express his opinion fearlessly,” Vijayan added.
Sashi Kumar, a senior journalist and founder of Asianet, termed the Centre’s action as “whimsical, arbitrary and dastardly.” The ban “is blatantly against the freedom of expression guaranteed as a fundamental right by the Constitution (Article 19 (1) and clauses) and can by no stretch of imagination be considered an exercise that can take refugee in the ‘reasonable restraint’ provisioned in the same article,” he said in a statement.
(With inputs from PTI)