New Delhi, March 6, 2020 — The Indian government should immediately lift the 48-hour ban imposed on Malayalam-language news channels Asianet News and MediaOne TV, and must stop arbitrarily censoring coverage of sensitive topics, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued two orders today, one to each broadcaster, ordering the stations to stop airing any programs for 48 hours as a penalty for their coverage of riots in Delhi, which the ministry alleged was biased and constituted incitement, according to the orders, which CPJ reviewed, and news reports. The bans went into effect at 7:30 p.m. this evening, according to those reports.
In the orders, the ministry alleged that Asianet News and MediaOne TV’s coverage of the riots “could incite violence and pose danger to maintenance of law and order.”
Demonstrations against a new citizenship law and national registry, which protesters say would discriminate against Muslim citizens, have been taking place in cities throughout India since December. Violence erupted in Delhi on February 23 after a local leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party threatened a crackdown against the protesters, according to news reports. At least 53 people, a majority of whom were Muslims, were killed in riots over four days, according to reports.
“The Indian government and Delhi police should focus on actual measures to stem the violence taking place in the city, instead of censoring news outlets and journalists for reporting on the riots,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher. “The riots are an issue of national importance and the media should be allowed to do their job without retaliation. Authorities should immediately withdraw the ban on Asianet News and MediaOne TV and allow them to continue broadcasting.”
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s order accused MediaOne TV of siding with a “particular community” in its coverage, and of improperly questioning the role of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organization of the Bharatiya Janata Party, in the violence. The order also said the network inappropriately alleged that Delhi police had failed to intervene and stop the riots.
The order against Asianet News also accused the station of being sympathetic to a “particular community,” and highlighted a report by P. R. Sunil, a reporter at the network, which claimed that Delhi police merely watched while rioters burned mosques and attacked bystanders, asking their religion. The order also said the network improperly alleged that the central government did not act to control the riots.
Both channels contested the bans before they were put into effect, according to the orders.
MediaOne TV editor-in-chief C. L. Thomas said the organization will legally challenge the government’s order in a statement, which CPJ reviewed. Asianet News editor-in-chief M.G. Radhakrishnan told CPJ via messaging app that his outlet was deciding how to respond to the ban.
CPJ emailed the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for comment but did not immediately receive any reply.
More than a dozen journalists were harassed and attacked while reporting on the riots in late February, according to CPJ research.