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Don’t belittle PM: Ministry
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh delivers this year’s Independence Day speech
New Delhi, Nov. 1: Thou shalt not denigrate the office of the honourable Prime Minister of India by comparing his Independence Day speech with that of other political leaders (read Narendra Modi).
It is apparently not a commandment but an “advisory” from the A Wing of Shastri Bhavan, home to Government of India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
The language of the October 21 circular does full justice to the traditions such nanny ministries strive to preserve: “Whereas it had come to the notice of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting that certain TV channels attempted to denigrate the Office of the Prime Minister of India by constantly trying to compare the speech of the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India with the speech of other political leaders on 15th August, 2013.”
The circular then sheds light on the reason for such counsel. “Whereas the telecast of this kind of programme on a day when entire nation was celebrating its 67th Independence Day is highly objectionable. The Prime Minister spoke from the Ramparts of the Red Fort, as the Prime Minister of the country and not as a leader of a political party. Therefore, on such a solemn day to put him in an artificial competition with anyone is not appropriate.”
The “advisory” is anything but benign towards the end when it warns that any violation of the programme code would attract penal provisions.
The apparent provocation was the split-screen comparison of the speeches of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in a Kutch college on this Independence Day. Modi was seen punching holes in several claims made by the Prime Minister.
Uploaded on the ministry’s site, the note was initially greeted with such incredulity that officials of some channels thought it was a hoax or practical joke meant to generate mirth on the social media.
But a pattern does emerge from such shots across the bows. If the BJP is accused of falling back on Hindutva when in crisis, the Congress, when it feels besieged, can be charged with betraying draconian spots that were tattooed deep during the Emergency of 1977.
Indira Gandhi took recourse to the Emergency when the odds, including in the courts, were mounting against her. Rajiv Gandhi test-fired the anti-defamation law in 1988 when Bofors was booming day in and day out but, in the face of an uproar, aborted the attempt to gag newspapers.
A quarter century on, the Congress-led UPA is also afflicted by a similar under-siege syndrome — but with a few crucial differences.
Aggressive television channels have been spoiling the government’s dinner with a daily dose of prime-time barrage of opinions. Add to the cocktail the combustible personality of Modi whose utterances are tailor-made for jump-cut television spectacle.
The perceived sensitive side of Manmohan Singh, especially to opinion aired on English channels, is also proving an Achilles heel in adverse weather. A politician thick-skinned enough to weather the numerous inevitable storms of public life would have ignored barbs slung by the “chattering classes” of Mumbai and Delhi, especially since the English news-viewing audience in the country accounts for less than 7 per cent of the total such viewers.
But the ministry headed by Manish Tewari, who is considered close to Manmohan Singh, has chosen to react in such a churlish manner to a comparison that will be considered routine, if not de rigueur, journalism in every free country in the world. Tewari, who was not in Delhi today, was not available for comment till this evening.
In the process, the note has opened the government up to criticism and derision.
“The timing of the advisory is eyebrow-raising and smacks of government paranoia over the press Narendra Modi is getting. Why are they waking up now?” asked Sevanti Ninan, who comments on the media.
The News Broadcasters Association, an umbrella body, described the government circular as a “terribly odd move”. (ABP Group, the publishers of The Telegraph, also owns news channels.)
“I do not know what the immediate provocation for the circular is but it is totally strange why the ministry came up with such an advisory. The government cannot dictate editorial decisions or tell us how to cover a certain event. We will engage with the ministry and find out why they did it,” NBA president K.V.L. Narayan Rao said.
Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of the IBN 18 network, said his group had not received any advisory yet but took exception to the government move.
“Freedom of speech is subject to reasonable restrictions. If one is putting out a story which incites violence or hatred between communities, such guidelines must be applied. But what the top news story should be or how to frame it is purely a matter of editorial discretion.”
Ninan added: “Comparing speeches do not violate the programme and advertising code. Violations can attract penal provisions. What the channels did may have been over the top but was hardly offensive. These judgements can apply maybe to state owned television, not to independent news channels. The advisory deserves a firm response from the broadcasters.”
If not for the flash of steel at the end, the rest of the circular could have drawn favourable comparisons with political satire and the author could have given erstwhile Soviet commissars a run for their money.
A sample: “On Independence Day when the Prime Minister addresses the nation and the country is united in the emotions of national integrity, patriotism and national fervor, the attempt by certain TV channels to denigrate the status of the Prime Minister can best be described as sensational and against all norms of ethical journalism.”
It is not clear what Manmohan Singh, weaned on the great liberal traditions of Cambridge and Oxford, would think of the circular that suggests the comparison of speeches of the Prime Minister and a challenger involves matters such as “good taste”, “decency” and “social, public and moral life of the country”.
The circular cites the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act and reminds channels that no programme can be transmitted/ retransmitted… which contains anything offensive against good taste or decency; and criticises, maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country.”