NDTV’s Assault on Free Speech

NDTV’s conduct should not surprise us.

In an op-ed written over an year ago (unfortunately, due to site changes, it is inaccessible on  Hindustan Times), Barkha Dutt, the managing editor of NDTV, had vented against anonymous bloggers who espouse popular opinion which are often bigoted, blasphemous and banal.”

It is an interesting choice of words–Dutt covers the entire gamut from communal speech to plain boring. And she takes care to point out that ”majority opinion can steamroll enlightened thought, and we, in the media, must be mindful of that”

It is a truly shocking display of hubris on part of an average journalist known more for her histrionics on television and poorly written opinion pieces. She not only passes judgment on thought process of others–which is her right–but argues that their opinions must be checked by the enlightened few.

Now, why this has become relevant is because a blogger, Chyetanya Kunte, has retracted a post he wrote at the time of Mumbai attacks. While the exact conditions of his apology are not clear, apparently, NDTV threatened him with legal action and as individuals are hardly well-positioned to take on a media behemoth, he preferred to withdraw his post.

It is an individual decision which we must all respect. Nevertheless, considering it involves the rights of all of us, we would be doing a great disservice to the very concept of blogging if this attack on a blogger’s right to his opinions–howsoever wrong they may appear to some parties–goes unchallenged.

Without going into specific of his post (to avoid more trouble to him–the google cache is available here), let’s look at the specific points of his apology.

a lack of ethics, responsibility and professionalism by Ms. Dutt and NDTV Limited

It is an individual’s right to demand a certain level of professional and ethical conduct from the media, and express disappointment when his standards are not met. Now, the media’s role after the Mumbai attack had come in from severe criticism–and not just from bloggers. Barkha Dutt’s own colleagues in the print media had criticized the lack of professionalism displayed by NDTV and other television channels–whether it was thrusting mikes in front of traumatized guests; indulging in rumor mongering; or giving public space to terrorists holding people’s lives to ransom. So much so that Barkha Dutt was forced to defend her own conduct and that of her channel in a lengthy piece published on NDTV.

Therefore, the outrage Kunte expresses is hardly unique. That a viewer should not have the right to criticize NDTV and its journalists for what he perceives to be shoddy journalism is preposterous.

that Ms. Dutt and NDTV’s reporting at the scene of the Mumbai attacks during November 2008, resulted in jeopardizing the safety and lives of civilians and / or security personnel caught up in and / or involved in defending against the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008;

Even a plain reading of Chetanya’s original piece would clearly convey that nowhere he directly alleges that the conduct of NDTV had caused any actual deaths; he merely suspects that on the basis of media reports.

Now, even the government believes that media did get in the way. In fact, NSG willy-nilly blamed the media for causing the death of one of its commandos in the Nariman house encounter,

Sources told The Indian Express that the force is particularly miffed with the way its operations at Nariman House were broadcast live. Questions are being raised over the way Havaldar Gajender Singh fell to a terrorist’s bullet at Nariman House. “TV broadcast our commandos landing from a helicopter on the roof over Nariman House. By the time our men landed and started taking positions, the terrorists were already waiting for them and opened fire,” an NSG official said[link]

The government was perturbed enough not only to ban the television media from coverage of the operations but came out with regulations to control the media’s conduct in future emergencies. Even the television networks, understanding the wide-spread public anger, called for self-regulation!

that Ms. Dutt was responsible for the death of Indian Servicemen during the Kargil Conflict.

This was a direct quote from Wikipedia–as Patrix points out, surely quoting from a public encyclopedia cannot be crime! And if it is, surely, NDTV should have sued Wikipedia too.

And here is the clincher: In his rant against the media, Admiral Sureesh Mehta directly alleged that Barkhta Dutt was responsible for death of three Indian soldiers in Kargil operations. Has Admiral Mehta been sued for what Barkha Dutt criticizes as ”defamatory” remarks? No! In fact, all that remark has elicited from NDTV and Barkha Dutt is an advice to read V.P Malik’s book on Kargil war and an ”official complaint.”

And if quoting from a website is crime, then surely The Hindu is liable for a suit too which quotes Chyetanya thusly,

“In one instance, Barkha Dutt of NDTV asks a husband about his wife who is either stuck or held as a hostage. The poor guy adds in the end about where she was last hiding. In another instance, a general of sorts suggests that there were no hostages in Oberoi Trident. Then Dutt calls the head of Oberoi (live) and the idiot confirms a possibility of 100 or more people still in to slay,” Kunte says [link]

Now, it can be reasonably hypothesized that Kunte was targeted precisely because he was quoted in the print media. But then why has The Hindu been let off?

Free speech does not protect one against libel. But at least by American legal standards, a public figure–which Barkha Dutt surely is– has to prove actual malice–”that you published with either knowledge of falsity or in reckless disregard for the truth”. What could an individual blogger have against NDTV or Barkhta Dutt?

In her columns, Barka Dutt frequently laments the demise of ”liberalism” in India–while painting her self as its protector. At least from this episode it is clear that for Barkha Dutt and NDTV freedom of speech does not extend to alternative voices but only to the self-described ”enlightened self”.

The reason is clear: the mainstream media’s intellectual hegemony is finally being challenged. And the self-proclaimed liberal mascots are showing their true colors.


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