Bengaluru: Kerala's news media was in for a shock on Friday night as the central government has banned two of the state's most-watched news channels, Asianet News and Media One, over their coverage of the recent riots in northeast Delhi.
The ban for 48 hours, effective from 7.30 pm on Friday, is based on allegedly airing critical reports, during the riots that killed 53, against the central government, its mentor organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, Delhi police, and, among others, siding towards a particular community while highlighting the attack on places of worship.
Being probably the first of its kind censorship over the state's television news, the ban has come under heavy fire from anti-BJP critics in Kerala, where Bharatiya Janata Party has never been able to capture a parliamentary seat and is working hard to change the fate.
Asianet News is promoted by BJP MP and media baron Rajeev Chandrashekar and Media One is the television arm of Madhyamam Broadcasting Limited, a newspaper group considered as a mouthpiece of Jamaat-e-Islami in Kerala.
M.G. Radhakrishnan, the chief editor of Asianet News, declined to comment on the development when contacted but said that they were "intimated about the ban only moments before it came into existence". Mint could not get an immediate comment from Media One.
The Information and Broadcasting ministry's order said that both news channels violated Cable Television Network Rules 1994 that provides, among other things, that "no programme should be carried in the cable service which attack on religions or communities or visuals or words contemptuous of religious groups or which promote communal attitudes".
The order lists a series of allegedly inflammatory reporting from the news channels, which, critics say, were only critical of the Centre's handling of the protests. It states that a report of PR Soni of Asianet News made statements like Delhi Police were mute spectators when rioters set ablaze mosques at Jaffrabad and Maujpur. In the case of Media One, it said, its reporter Hassanul Banna made statements like "vandals fired at an anti-Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) protest site from a rooftop from 2pm to 9 pm".
Both channels were given showcase notices on 28 February, it added, where they defended their reportage under the free speech arguments and even pointed out some alleged factual mistakes in the notice.
Media One said in its reply: "The Notice stating the timing of the telecast of the news in question is not correct. On facts, the notice says that the timing of the incident was at 00:03 am. In fact there was a commercial break from 00:29 to 00:32 after which there was a recorded program "Weekend Arabia".
However, on the report in question it defended the coverage and said: "It is reiterated that the news reports telecast by Media One about the incident, which happened in north east Delhi do not constitute any breach of Rule L994, It is the lawfully accepted duty of the media under Article 19 (1) (a) read with Article 15(2) of the Constitution of India to bonafide investigate and report news truly and correctly."
Both channels are known for their aggressive reporting styles and often impactful investigative reports. Asianet News especially has irked both Left and Right-wing groups in Kerala. The Left government's chief minister in Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, has not given an interview to the channel's head since coming to power in 2016, seen as a result of its negative stories on the party and the government. In 2015, the BJP in Kerala boycotted the channel for a brief period citing negative stories about the party and its leaders.
However, the action against the channels has raised a storm of criticism against the BJP in Kerala, a news-heavy state with at least seven news channels. Leaders of both the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM and the main opposition Congress, along with journalists and others in the media fraternity have come out strongly against the development. "Such orders are not favourable in a democracy. Central government's action is a fascist one," said CPM Kerala general secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan.
"The government is demanding silence and total subordination. People can decide how to react against this. People will decide," said Congress legislator V.T. Balram in a Facebook post.
BJP Kerala boss K. Surendran welcomed the action. "A communal riot in the national capital should have been reported with utmost restraint and wisdom," he said in a Facebook post.
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