NEW DELHI • India's government has accused three television networks of violating broadcasting regulations by showing interviews that criticised the execution of Yakub Memon, who was hanged last month for the 1993 Mumbai bombings that killed 257 people.
In formal notices to the three networks, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said the interviews were improper because they "cast aspersions on the integrity" of India's judicial system. The notices require the three networks - NDTV, ABP News and Aaj Tak - to explain why they should not face a possible broadcast suspension.
The government's move drew protest from India's Broadcast Editors' Association, which said the notices were a "questionable pretext" for a larger government campaign to control news coverage.
The association, representing top TV news editors, cited several other "selective" actions by federal and state governments, including threats of defamation lawsuits and a new rule that limits news coverage of anti-terrorism operations to "periodic briefings" by government press officers.
Last Friday's notices came one week after the government abruptly ordered Internet service providers to block 857 pornography sites.
"We don't think we have violated any regulation at all. We feel our coverage was extremely fair and balanced."
MS SONIA SINGH, the editorial director of NDTV. The government took issue withthe station's 20-minute programme, "Truth versus Hype: The Riddle of Yakub Memon", which the network broadcast on Aug 1.
Officials were forced to rescind the ban in the face of a furious backlash, but the episode fuelled a growing perception that the government is quietly seeking greater control over what its citizens read or watch. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which is overseen by Mr Arun Jaitley, one of the most influential members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Cabinet, did not respond to e-mail and phone messages seeking comment.
Television news executives said they were stunned by the crackdown, especially since all three networks gave significant airtime to government officials who defended Memon's execution. Until now, they said, government officials have usually been content to take their complaints over coverage to the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, an independent body set up by TV networks to police unfair or unethical news coverage.
"We don't think we have violated any regulation at all," said Ms Sonia Singh, the editorial director of NDTV. "We feel our coverage was extremely fair and balanced."
The ministry cited ABP News and Aaj Tak, two popular Hindi-language networks, for their phone interviews with a man known as Chhota Shakeel, a Mumbai underworld figure whom the authorities have accused of helping plan the 1993 Mumbai bombings.
Shakeel, who has avoided arrest, called numerous Indian news organisations to angrily denounce the execution of Memon on July 30.
He told The Times of India it was "a legal murder", and told ABP News that Memon was hanged for the crimes of his brother, Tiger Memon, the alleged bombing mastermind who remains at large. "This is not justice; this is vengeance," he told Aaj Tak.
In the case of NDTV, the Information Ministry's notice took issue with a 20-minute programme the network broadcast on Aug 1 called "Truth versus Hype: The Riddle of Yakub Memon".
The programme, hosted by Mr Sreenivasan Jain, one of India's most respected broadcasters, carefully sifted through a controversy that had erupted days before Memon's execution - whether India's intelligence and law enforcement agencies betrayed him by reneging on a promise to spare him the death penalty in exchange for his cooperation in describing how the bombings were planned, financed and executed.
Mr Jain gave both sides of the dispute, interviewing those who said Memon was betrayed and scapegoated, and a former senior police official who said the only promise made to Memon was that he would receive "the great justice of India".
The Information Ministry took issue with comments at the end of the programme from Mr Majeed Memon, one of Memon's former lawyers. (The two men are not related.) The lawyer pointed to a defendant who he said was pardoned despite playing "10 times more" of a role in the bombings than Memon.
"If you show this pardon to any person outside India - UK authorities or US authorities or the best brains in the world as far as criminal law is concerned - they will laugh at you," he said. "They will laugh at you. They'll say, 'Is this justice?' " The lawyer went on to emphasise that he was not criticising the Supreme Court, which rejected Memon's final appeal only hours before his hanging at dawn on July 30. "I salute the Supreme Court for having at least afforded to him even the last opportunity at 3am," he said.
According to the ministry's notice, this interview "not only questioned the judicial system of India but tended to denigrate the very institution by hinting that it was not at par with the judicial systems existing in the UK and US".
NEW YORK TIMES