Off the air

Vector icon of scissors cutting film shot

Vector icon of scissors cutting film shot

Censorship is always abhorrent in a democracy. There are unlikely to be two views about this. However, Indians need to reflect upon the way our allegedly autonomous publicly owned broadcasting corporations treat comments by Opposition leaders which could offend the government of the day. This month alone we’ve had two distressing instances. In one case, a Chief Minister’s speech was recorded but not broadcast. In the other, an outgoing Vice President’s interview was not repeated even though the repeat telecast times had been broadcast.

Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar’s Independence Day speech no doubt made points that would make the Modi government uncomfortable. He said “the spirit of secularism is under attack.” He added: “Conspiracies and attempts are under way to create an undesirable complexity and divisions in our society; to invade our national consciousness in the name of religion, caste and community, by inciting passions to convert India into a particular religion country and in the name of protecting the cow.” It’s clear who Mr. Sarkar was targeting although he did not name anyone. But his concerns are widely shared. More importantly, Independence Day is an appropriate moment to voice apprehensions about the nation’s future. To have censored the speech on the grounds that it wasn’t “very positive” is bizarre. Honest and reflective criticism should always be considered positive content.

Possibly more inexplicable was Prasar Bharati’s request that Mr. Sarkar “reshape” his speech. If anything, this compounded the censorship by trying to tell an elected head of government what to say or how to express himself.

What happened to former Vice President Hamid Ansari’s interview was not as extreme but it was still unfortunate. The interview was shown in full on August 10, his last day in office. But the repeats scheduled and announced for August 11 were either altered at the last moment or altogether dropped. It was ‘understood’ that once Mr. Ansari was no longer Vice President, Rajya Sabha TV felt no compulsion to repeat his interview.

I’m not sure if Prasar Bharati or Rajya Sabha TV were acting under instructions. Indeed, it’s quite possible that pusillanimous officers chose to drop a speech or not repeat an interview that would upset their masters. And I have no doubt that if a Congress government had been in power, a BJP Chief Minister’s speech or a BJP-appointed Vice President’s interview would have been similarly treated.

There’s no doubt Ministers often demand that opposition viewpoints are dropped. But, almost as often, officials act according to what they believe their political masters desire. In many instances, it’s this anticipation that undermines our public broadcasters. It happens because inappropriate people are appointed but also because the system does not give them security. Just 11 months ago, the Prime Minister told Network 18 : “... There should be the strictest possible analysis of the government and the work done by it. Otherwise, democracy cannot run … That’s why I want the media to be very critical.” Now he must insist public broadcasters act accordingly.

Karan Thapar is a broadcast journalist and interviewed Hamid Ansari for Rajya Sabha TV .

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Printable version | Aug 11, 2022 4:49:08 am |