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The Times of India, SATURDAY, MARCH 02, 2002 9:44:43 PM
Gag orders issued against TV news channels

AHMEDABAD: Censorship today doesn’t necessarily need a pair of scissors. It can be done by the click of a button. Police across Gujarat, apparently on the orders from the government in Gandhinagar, is using its powers to gag the electronic media.

News channels across Gujarat, which were giving a blow-by-blow account of the riots, blinked off the television screens in several cities as the police silenced certain channels.

On Saturday, Ahmedabadis were cut off from the world in more ways than one. Forced inside their homes for the third consecutive day, desperate attempts of the people to know what was happening in the city met with blank screens as the state government blocked all satellite news channels from beaming into city homes.

Exercising special powers, city police commissioner PC Pande issued notices to cable operators in the city directing them to block all programmes that could incite violence, enmity between two communities and disrupt law and order situation in the city. Those not adhering to the directives would be subject to punishment, the notice said.

Following the same, all three news channels were pulled off air early morning by most cable operators. Black screens irked residents no end who were depending on the news channels to provide them with updates on the situation in the city.

In Vadodara, Star News channel was blocked, while authorities in Surat blocked two local channels - MY TV and Channel Surat. In Rajkot, police commissioner Upendra Singh has directed cable operators to block Star News and four local news channels. He has also banned publication of special supplements of three local Gujarati eveningers.

“Most of the control rooms in the city received phone calls from the collector's office to black out Star News, Zee News, CNN and Aaj Tak," said president of the Ahmedabad Cable Operator's Association Pramod Pandya.

According to Surat police commissioner Vineet Gupta, directives had been issued to all cable operators to refrain from showing anything which was provocative. "We directed them not to show anything which could flare up communal sentiments or cause a law and order problem" Gupta said.

“How can they black out the news channels when news is what we need the most?” Vipul Patel, a resident of Manekbaug asked. An inquiry made to his cable operator revealed that the cable network hub near Dharnidhar Derasar has been set on fire so restoring the service would take time.

Ramesh Thakkar of Paldi was given the same justification that cable is not working because the network distribution hub was damaged.

Interestingly, most resident felt that blacking out news channels was actually more damaging as people then had no option but to rely on rumours. “We are not getting the news channels. Withholding information will only backfire as we would be forced to beleive in rumours that are flying thick and fast,” says Jigna Shah of Shahpur.

“We pay Rs 200 per month for cable services but in the critical time when we need to know local news, we are not getting the news channels. Right to information is a basic right. How can anyone snatch that right away from us?” quizzed Shyam Sundar of Vejalpur.

Cable service providers when contacted confessed that they had received official notice ordering ordering to discontinue showing news channels in Gujarat till the riots were fully controlled.

(With inputs from Surat, Vadodara and Rajkot bureau), March 12, 2002
'The media does not incite violent passions, events do'

NDTV's Rajdeep Sardesai speaks to Aman Singh about the ban on Star News following its vivid coverage of the gruesome carnage in Gujarat

New Delhi, March 9

On the occasion of a discussion on Media, the State and Gujarat, present among many other senior journalists and editors, was NDTV's Rajdeep Sardesai, who spoke about his experiences in Gujarat and on the need for a code of conduct in the media. He felt there definitely was a need to compile some ethics and boundaries, while at the same time recognising that in today's age, the people need to be informed what is happening fast.

The print media follows certain guidelines like not naming or identifying communities, referring to them instead as "one community" and "another community". Since the electronic media is based on visuals, do you need to specify any community?

When we were in Gujarat, half an hour after interviewing Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who went on saying that the situation was normal, we were told that our channel had been banned. As we were moving out, we saw mobs virtually every 20 metres, stopping vehicles and killing people. We were stopped twice; the press sticker did not matter. The first time, we were asked whether we were Hindus or not and if we were then we could go unharmed. The second time, we were stopped by a Muslim mob. And the chief minister says the situation is normal.

In such situations, what are we supposed to do? I personally follow one thing. We are supposed to report facts and tell the people what is happening. What are the options in front of us? We either say "one group and another group", or we say "minority and majority communities", which again is telling enough. In the Tata Sumo case, where eight or nine people were charred alive, we did not name communities but we had to show the visuals.

We have to show things as they are. In this age, we have to tell the people what is happening all the time and this results in new needs.

So you are justifying your visuals by saying that a 24-hour medium demands instant coverage, may it be a bit insensitive?

No, I don't mean that. As a media expert once said, today's electronic media has seen a complete tabloidisation and this is inevitable because it needs visuals that strike a chord with the audience. My motivation in Gujarat was showing facts as they existed. In-your-face journalism has gone completely. We need to bring that back. I am ready to defend all arguments.

But don't you think such extensive coverage could cause an adverse reaction?

I am very clear about this. It is not the media that incites such passion among the people it is the event. Our responsibility is to report actual facts. First there was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) bandh that prevented us from any reporting and later when the first pictures began to come in, the situation was already out of hand. While the government kept on saying the situation was normal, we were seeing quite different scenes in Gujarat. How can I permit myself to agree to Chief Minister Modi's statement that only 10 villages are burning when I myself have seen at least 56?

How did the people of Gujarat react to Star TV's reporting?

There is no question of any one reaction. That state has become so totally divided that there is no unanimity left there. The Muslims are so insecure, fearful and anxious for themselves that it is impossible to stand there and not feel bad about it. They feel we are somehow trying to bring in differences whereas that is not the case; we are just showing the clashes.

So you would say the polarization between Hindus and Muslims is complete in Gujarat?

Definitely, they are so terribly divided that there is no question now of their unity. It is very badly polarized.

The Governor of Gujarat Sundar Singh Bhandari and Chief Minister Modi are full-time RSS pracharaks. Do you think they let the situation get out of hand?

Modi has spent his entire life working for the RSS. So has the Governor. Gujarat is the only state where both the governor and the chief minister happen to be full-time RSS workers. These people have practically eaten dal-roti with the VHP and the RSS!

But, a very significant point here is that all governments that have come to power in the state are culpable for the present state of affairs and not the BJP alone.

During the carnage in Gujarat, the Army was first on standby and later staged a flag march. How did Star TV show the development?

The army has always been effective in riot situations and it is a fact that it should have been brought in much earlier. If we had not shown the place as it was and the killings as they were happening, maybe the Army would have not been deployed till another 24 hours with a thousand more killings. So what we did has, according to me, contributed to the restoration of peace there.


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