The Editor's Guild of India and several senior journalists have called for the withdrawal of show-cause notices served to three news channels, for the coverage of 1993 Mumbai blasts convict Yakub Memon's execution on 30 July, that includes criticism of the execution.
The government's move did not go down well with the Broadcast Editors' Association (BEA), Press Club of India and journalists' associations, which have called the move as an "attempt to intimidate the media" and crush their freedom.
The Editors' Guild of India and all the Press Clubs from across India have called on the Ministry to withdraw the notices.
"It is shocking that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry should have issued notices to ABP News, NDTV and Aaj Tak for their coverage of the Yakub Memon issue under the cable TV regulations. Those regulations were never meant to be used to stop the free and vigorous discussion of matters of public interest, however disagreeable the content might be to the government," The Indian Express quoted the Editors' Guild of India president N Ravi as saying.
"Yakub Memon's case before the Supreme Court and the President and the subsequent execution were matters of widespread public interest, with sharply polarised viewpoints. The discussion of the issues was obviously in the nature of political speech that should be allowed free expression without curbs. Viewpoints unacceptable to the government ought not to be penalised on the specious plea that they would incite violence or spread hatred," Ravi said.
"The Editors' Guild of India calls upon the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to withdraw the notices forthwith. It is also time for a re-examination of the broadcasting regulations that on the face of it look over broad and leave room for misuse in violation of the right to freedom of expression under Article 19 1(a) of the Constitution," he added.
The Press Clubs of India have also sent a joint statement to the Prime Minister, asking to withdraw the notices as it violates the rights of media and reflects the insecurity and intolerance of the government.
"It is shameful that cable TV rules have been invoked to question the right of the media to air views or do stories that run contrary to the decisions of the government and the Supreme Court on capital punishment in general and Memon's case in particular... We urge Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene and immediately withdraw the notices," the statement said.
The move has also been criticised by Congress leader Manish Tewari, who is also a former I&B Minister. "Section 1(g) of Rule 6 of the Programmes Code is an oxymoron. The President of India is not a holy cow that his public conduct should not be subject to scrutiny by the media and the citizenry," Tewari told the Sunday Express.
Former Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court and Chairperson of the Broadcasting Complaints Council of India Mukul Mudgal too condemned the move, saying "Had it been a matter of anti-national activity or a matter of national security, I would have understood. But how can anyone try to stop free and fair discussion?"
Meanwhile, the BEA is planning to take up the matter of amendment to the Cable Television Networks Rules with the Centre as this amendment violates the freedom of media.
"In essence, the amendment (to the Cable Television Network Rules) seems violative of media freedom, we have decided to take up the issue of show-cause notices with the government," BEA general secretary N K Singh said.
What do the sections say
Section 1(d) of Programme Code: No programme should be carried in the cable service which contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half truths.
Section 1(e) of Programme Code: No programme should be carried in the cable service which is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which promote-anti-national attitudes.
Section 1(g) of Programme Code: No programme should be carried in the cable service which contains aspersions against the integrity of the President and Judiciary.
Is it an attempt to curtail media freedom?
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had on Friday issued notices to ABP News, NDTV 24×7 and Aaj Tak accusing them of violating broadcasting regulations. The Ministry has given 15 days to explain why they should not face action for violating broadcasting rules.
In the notices served under Sections 1(d), 1(g) and 1(e) of Rule 6 of the Programme Code under the Cable Television Network Rules, 1994, the government claimed that the news channels disrespected the judiciary and the President of India by showing content that criticised the execution of Yakub Memon.
The government also objected to the interviews with Chhota Shakeel, associate of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, on Aaj Tak and ABP News. Shakeel had called Yakub Memon innocent during the interview and said that he was punished for the crimes of his elder brother, Tiger Memon. The Ministry has also noted several debates on TV channels as violation of broadcasting rules.
The I&B Ministry has pointed out at one such debate on NDTV and said, the interview (with Yakub's lawyer Majeed Memon) "not only questioned the judicial system of India, but tended to denigrate the very institution by hinting that it was not at par with the judicial systems existing in the UK and US," The New York Times reports.
In the interview, Majeed referred to a defendant who he said was involved in the bombings "10 times more" than Yakub and was still pardoned. "If you show this pardon to any person outside India — UK authorities or US authorities or the best brains in the world as far as criminal law is concerned — they will laugh at you... They will laugh at you. They'll say, 'Is this justice?'" Majeed had said.
Majeed had, however, also praised the Supreme Court for hearing the petitions late at night.
Speaking in the channel's defence, the editorial director of NDTV Sonia Singh said, "We don't think we have violated any regulation at all... We feel our coverage was extremely fair and balanced. However, we are looking at the notice and will respond to the ministry."