I remember watching Doordarshan the day the Babri Masjid was destroyed by Hindu fundamentalists. The Central and Uttar Pradesh governments knew that this was coming but was totally ill prepared to prevent the 500 year old Mosque from being attacked. But what state controlled media like Doordarshan and All India Radio did was even more surprising. They pretended that the proposed demolition did not happen. They had no live coverage and did not show any photographs or video of the event which was probably the most important event in India after Indira Gandhi’s assassination (obviously private national level news networks did not exist then as they do now).
Most Indians were shocked to wake up the next day and find pictures and details of the demolition in the front pages of our newspapers. People who did not have access to newspapers probably did not learn about this news until much later. This incident showed that the Indian governments were as good as governments of totalitarian regimes like China when it comes to censorship, manipulating the media and preventing access to vital information.
We all know that on September 24th the Allahabad High Court will deliver its verdict on the explosive Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute. There is potential for communal riots after the verdict is delivered. It is very likely that the outcome will be appealed and the final verdict by the Supreme Court is probably years if not a decade away.
This time around the private media has now taken upon itself to come up with “guidelines” (read censor) the news and information about this verdict. The News Broadcasters Association (NBA) which is a lobbying group that represents the major private television news networks in India has issued guidelines that includes some of the following: 1) No footage of the demolition of the Babri Masjid (in 1992) is to be shown in any news item relating to the judgment. 2) No visuals need be shown depicting celebration or protest of the judgment. 3) No broadcast should be made of any speculation of the judgment before it is pronounced and of its likely consequence thereafter which may be sensational, inflammatory or provocative.
Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor-in-Chief of the IBN18 network said “I don’t think this should be seen as censorship. It simply means we must absorb the basic principle of self-restraint…one of the important lessons we have learnt.” I have a lot of respect for Rajdeep Sardesai but he is wrong on this issue. This is a classic case of self-censorship by the media and is identical to what happened in the American media leading up to the Iraq war. The definition of self-censorship according to Cambridge dictionary is “control of what you say or do in order to avoid annoying or offending others, but without being told officially that such control is necessary”.
One of the basic duties of the media is to inform and educate the public. In many cases this involves going over reams of paper and pointing out and debating the important issues. Almost everything about the Ayodhya case and/or the verdict can be considered as “sensational, inflammatory or provocative” by any number of people. But it is the duty of the media to go over the verdict and provide expert opinion on what exactly it states. Experts might disagree on what the verdict actually means but that is normal. The last thing we want is some Imam or Swami to interpret the verdict for us.
The Indian media is not known for showing restraint. Charges about corrupt politicians and videos of sexual acts involving politicians and religious leaders are shown on television with total disregard for the burden of proof or privacy of the individual. So why is maintaining communal harmony, preservation of secular ethos and formation of the correct public opinion an issue now when it was not before?
What the NBA “guidelines” indicate to me is that the broadcast media has no confidence in the Indian public and in our ability to show restraint. The NBA has fallen victim to fear and intimidation. The question of self preservation seems to be more important than defending and strengthening the Indian democracy at a critical moment. This is a victory for the Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists and common criminals.
What the NBA and the Indian broadcast media should understand is that there is nothing it can do to prevent individuals who want to commit violence from committing violence in the name of religion. But the NBA should stand up for the vast majority of Indians who understand and follow the rule of law and also stand up for our right to be informed.
“The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion” - Henry Steele Commager
- Censorship in India: The Right to Read
- Ayodhya Verdict: India is the Winner
- The Decline of the American News Media
- Indian Government’s Propaganda Machine Is 50 Years Old
- Binayak Sen: Civil Rights Activist to Convicted Criminal
Category: News & Government