Two Malayalam news channels have been taken off air for 48 hours, effective 7.30 pm Friday, for their coverage of the violence that hit parts of northeast Delhi last week.
In orders issued late on Friday evening, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry said Asianet News and MediaOne TV had violated provisions of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, by broadcasting reports on February 25 that "highlighted the attack on places of worship and siding towards a particular community".
The ministry said that as per the rules "no programme should be carried... which contains attacks on religions or communities or visuals or words contemptuous of religious groups".
It further charged that "no programme should be carried... which is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order".
The ministry said Asianet had referred to the attacks as "communal violence" and its anchor/correspondent had said "the centre gave silent consent for the violence".
The ministry said it had examined a copy of the telecast, which included comments like "...commuters on the road are forced to chant Jai Shri Ram... Muslims are brutally attacked... (and) centre can control the violence within hours, but no action has been taken".
The notification against MediaOne TV focused on a phone-in of a Delhi-based correspondent who claimed "vandals had fired at an anti-CAA protest site from a rooftop from 2 pm to 9 pm and around five anti-CAA protesters were injured".
The phone-in also contained reports that vandals had attacked anti-CAA protesters at Chand Bagh, one of the worst-hit areas. According to the ministry the MediaOne reporters also said "Delhi Police remained inactive... vandalised shops and fruit carts and set them ablaze".
A copy of the transmission that aired on MediaOne TV was examined by the ministry, which said it attacked the government for its "cold-shouldered approach towards anti-CAA protesters" and criticised Delhi Police for failing to register FIRs against a "provocative speech" by unnamed BJP leader in Jafrabad, another of the violence-hit areas.
Both channels provided detailed responses to the notifications that were listed in the same.
MediaOne TV called the charges "not correct... arbitrary and unreasonable", pointing out that the ministry had "conveniently omitted several news reports (telecast the same day) that reported the government (was) doing everything possible to curb the violence".
The channel also pointed out that during the time that one of its broadcasts had allegedly aired there had been a commercial break, followed by a recorded programme on Arabia.
"This is the central government trying to intimidate channels and it's a signal to everyone. We have done only what we as media should do. We have reported only facts," CL Thomas, the channel's editor-in-chief, said.
On being asked about allegations of criticism against the RSS, the ideological mentor of the ruling BJP, Mr Thomas said: "It seems the RSS is beyond questioning".
"The I&B Ministry's ban on MediaOne channel is unfortunate and condemnable. This is a blatant attack on free and fair reporting. MediaOne will fight legally against this unprecedented and undemocratic action by the I&B Ministry," Mr Thomas told news agency ANI.
Asianet News was similarly steadfast in its denial, saying their reporters had risked their lives to report on the violence. In response to allegations of siding with a community, the channel pointed out they had also telecast interviews with residents of Yamuna Vihar who belonged to the majority community.
Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Issac praised both channels for "impartial reportage (and) exposing Hindutva communal brigades".
AsianetNews and Media One News channels telecast banned for 48 hours for their impartial reportage of Delhi riots and exposing role Hindutva communal brigades. Protest the brazen attempt to gag the press .— Thomas Isaac (@drthomasisaac) March 6, 2020
The ban was also criticised by Ramesh Chennithala, Leader of the Opposition, who said it was a "fascist decision" that was "unconstitutional and against freedom of press".
Decision to halt the telecast of Media One &Asianet news by Modi is unconstitutional & against the freedom of press.All democratic minds should unite to voice against this fascist decision.These medias did a wonderful job in bringing out the gravity of communal violence in Delhi— Ramesh Chennithala (@chennithala) March 6, 2020
Congress leader and Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor also tweeted, wondering "how on earth can Malayalam channels inflame communal passions in Delhi?"
Mr Tharoor also questioned how "truly vicious propaganda channels like Re-pubic & TimesCow can continue their brazen distortions w/impunity".
How on earth can Malayalam channels inflame communal passions in Delhi? Whereas the truly vicious propaganda channels like Ré-pubic & TimesCow continue their brazen distortions w/impunity. @asianetnewstv& @MediaOneTVLive are fine independent media. #LiftTheBan now. https://t.co/0eVQBbRKPx— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) March 6, 2020
Horrific violence broke out across Delhi last week, leaving more than 50 people dead and hundreds injured. Shops, schools, homes and vehicles were vandalised and set ablaze as armed goons defied police orders to rampage through the streets.
Delhi Police and Home Minister Amit Shah, as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have come under pressure with the opposition charging they failed to act swiftly enough to contain the violence.
A discussion on the violence will be held in parliament on March 11, the day after Holi, the government said today, giving in to pressure by the opposition.