The NDTV Ban: India’s Long History of TV Censorship

The one-day ban of news channel NDTV India is a significant escalation against India’s free press. The government has long monopolised the carriage of speech, particularly radio and television, a stranglehold broken only by the rise of private cable TV in the mid-1990s. All channels are forced to obey the Programme Code, a bizarre, poorly-drafted censorship law which is clearly unconstitutional.

The Writer and the Mob

“Perumal Murugan is dead,” wrote the Tamil writer and teacher Perumal Murugan after his books were burnt, his family displaced, his safety threatened, and his career made uncertain. The Madras High Court has brought Murugan to life again. His right to write was upheld. More importantly, his right to offend, without which the right to free speech means little, was upheld. And, crucially, the state was reminded that it is charged with the obligation to resist the illegal demands of censorious mobs, not to appease them.

The Supreme Court’s Loss of Reputation

The Supreme Court’s refusal to strike down the anachronistic colonial offence of criminal defamation is wrong. Criminalising defamation serves no legitimate public purpose; the vehicle of criminalisation – sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) – is unconstitutional; and the court’s reasoning is woolly at best.

The Humpty-Dumpty Censorship of Television in India

In India, a cable television channel’s content has invited a government warning, which the channel has judicially challenged. The incident recasts light on India’s absurd system of television censorship, which primarily flows from the Cable Televison Act, 1995. A poorly-drafted list of prohibited content, called the Programme Code, is interpreted by a group of unaccountable bureaucrats with no specialized knowledge of television, arts, or the law. Similar to the erstwhile section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which was recently judicially struck down for vagueness, the Programme Code has survived by evading judicial scrutiny. How does such arbitrary censorship subsist? Humpty Dumpty might have the best answer.