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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 45 New Delhi October 29, 2016

JNU Row and the Forgotten ‘Right to Reply’

Sunday 30 October 2016

by Surbhi Karwa and Shivam Yadav

“Let people know the facts and the country will be safe.” —Abraham Lincoln

The media is the fourth pillar of democracy— we have been taught this since our early lessons in social studies in school. The role of the media in a vibrant democracy is something which is crystal-clear to all of us. But the Indian media has its own share of challenges in the form of paid news, remuneration and job-security of journalists and, most importantly, media trials. The recent media coverage and reporting of alleged anti-national slogans at JNU have brought this issue of media ethics and media trial to the forefront again. The media reporting has been as controversial as the original incident itself.

Media Coverage of JNU Row and Questions of Media Accountability

It was alleged that on February 9, 2016 ‘anti-national’ slogans were raised at one of the prime institutions of our nation, the Jawaharlal Nehru University. But what was followed in the name of reporting is nothing short of a daily TV soap essentially marked with deranged shouting by anchors and panelists, passing off aphorisms as facts, character assassination, ganging-up and selectivism.

In the second week of February in living rooms across our country, TV channels ran a video where students were shown to be shouting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’, ‘Jitne Afzal Maaroge, Utne Afzzal Niklenge’ and such other anti-national slogans. But later it was alleged that the said video was doctored.

One of the basic principles of journalism is to write ‘accused/ ‘alleged’ before using the name of a person against whom charges have been levelled. Playing havoc with this basic principle the news channels called the accused in this case “anti-national” and “terro-rists” with a constant question: ”Who funds them?” “You are worse than a Maoist terrorist,” shouted another anchor on a popular prime- time show. A recording of the programme of another channel is billed on Youtube as ‘MUST WATCH!! Anti-India event organiser of JNU ripped apart by XXX News Anchor XXXXX’!!

Another problematic feature of the reporting was not allowing the panelists to put forward their view. “I want to answer you”—kept shouting a panelist on a prime-hour debate but with no opportunity to actually answer.

This is not the first time that questions of media ethics have been raised. We carry a whole history of rampant violation of media ethics and media trials. So, the question arises: if the court sets them free of the charges, what is the remedy the accused (the students in this case) have against these news channels? A suit for defamation is an obvious remedy but it is time-consuming and expensive.

We see a potential answer in the ‘right to reply’. The right to reply is considered as one facet of freedom of speech and expression. It refers to the right of a person to defend himself or present his side of an event/story if he believes himself to be aggrieved by any item published/broadcast on TV/newspaper at the same platform or medium, where the impugned material was published or broadcast. So what essentially this right will ensure is that the students of JNU will get a time-slot and proper opportunity to present their views at the same news channels where they have been allegedly targeted.

Right to Reply: The International Practices

If we look into the international context of this right then Article 14(1) of American Convention on Human Rights “Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica” provides for right to reply and reads as: “Anyone injured by inaccurate or offensive statements or ideas disseminated to the public in general by a legally regulated medium of communication has the right to reply or to make a correction using the same communications outlet, under such conditions as the law may establish.”

On the other hand, ACHR does not mention the right to reply explicitly. However, it has recognised the right to reply under the Conven-tion’s Article 1061 on freedom of expression.

Right to Reply: The Indian Context

The status of right to reply varies from country to country. While a limited number of countries ensure that it was an expressed constitutional right, many others treat it as a statutory matter. France and Germany are the most influential countries around the world supporting the right to reply.In some countries, on the other hand, certain media outlets and publications choose to grant this right just as a matter of policy. The jurisprudence of right to reply is still under-developed in India.

The case of the Life Insurance Corporation of India v. Manubhai D Shah1 is the only case in our country where the court implicitly accepted the right to reply of an individual though without dealing with the issue of right to reply and its extent specifically. In this case the Life Insurance Corporation refused to publish a rejoinder sent by one Prof Manubhai Shah, executive trustee of the Consumer Education and Research Centre, Ahmedabad in justification of his study-paper regarding alleged discriminatory practices of the Corporation in its magazine Yogakshema. The study-paper was first published in a newspaper which also published a counter written by a Director of the Corporation and a rejoinder sent by the author of the study-paper. Subsequently, the Yogakshema carried the counter alone without publishing either the study-paper or the rejoinder. The Supreme Court held that the refusal by the LIC to publish the rejoinder was arbitrary and violative of Articles 14 and 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution.

Another case which indirectly deals with the issue of views being distorted on mass media is the case of Indira Jaising v UO2 where the petitioner was invited to give an interview on TV to be telecast over the national network but when the interview was broadcast the views of the petitioner were distorted, and that was challenged by the petitioner as the violation of her fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. The Bombay HC declared that by deleting the petitioner’s views in their entirety the respondents have “violated her fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) without any authority of law”. (Para 17)

In our country, the Press Council of India is a statutory authority which works for pre-serving the freedom of the press and of maintaining and improving the standards of newspapers and news agencies in the country.Section 14(1) of the Press Council of India Act, 1978 ensures the power of the Council to censure in case of complaint of violation of journalist ethics. And Regulation 3(1)(c) of the Press Council (Procedure for Inquiry) Regulations, 1979 provides for an option to a person to file a complaint to the Council in respect of the publication or non-publication of any matter in any newspaper or news agency. A combined reading of both provisions vaguely hints towards right to reply, but not explicitly. While the print media as matter of policy and norms of journalism does provide for publication of counter and rejoinder articles, the electronic media have remained by and large untouched from accountability of right to reply.

Right to Reply vis-à-vis Editor’s Right

The biggest challenge to the mandatory right to reply is the right of the editor to publish or not publish/ broadcast any article, letter, news item, or picture sent to it for publication/broadcasting. As part of the freedom of press, each newspaper and news channel is free to choose its content. Giving exactly the same argument the Supreme Court of the United States of America in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo,3held the mandatory right to reply statutes as unconstitutional.

Need for Debating Right to Reply

The fundamental objective of journalism is to serve the people with news, views, comments and information on matters of public interest in a fair, accurate, unbiased and manner. Right to reply can be an important mechanism not only to ensure an aggrieved person a chance to reply but also to uphold the right of the listeners of radio and TV programmes to hear differing views on various topics of public interest. (The Supreme Court of the USA in the Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission)4

Healthy and informative debates are pillar- stones for a participatory democracy and right to reply has the potential to ensure the same by providing a platform for free flow of information from both parties of a story. A statutory right to reply can still be argued against by citing the rights of editors but a non-legal protection of the principle of right to reply through self-regulating measures; especially in the electronic media, is the call of the hour. The JNU row is an opportunity to seriously debate and discuss the ‘right to reply’.


1. Life Insurance Corporation of India v. Manubhai D Shah

 A.I.R. 1993 S.C. 171.

2. Indira Jaising v UOIAIR 1989 Bom 25.

3. Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo 418 U.S. 241 (1974).

4. Red Lion Broadcasting Co.v. Federal Communications Commission 395 U.S. 367.

Ms Surbhi Karwa is a Third Year student of BA LLB (Hons) at Dr Ram Manohar Lohia National Law University, Lucknow. Shivam Yadav is a Second Year student of BA LLB (Hons) at Dr Ram Manohar Lohia National University, Lucknow.

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