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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 42, New Delhi, October 3, 2020

Court can control publication of anti-people content on TV | Arun Srivastava

Friday 2 October 2020

by Arun Srivastava

The Modi government is not averse to Supreme Court laying down guidelines for the digital media but is completely opposed to apex court laying down “any further guidelines’ for rest of mainstream media on the plea that there already exists sufficient framework and judicial pronouncements with regard to electronic media and print media. This plea of the Modi government is really incomprehensible that "if the court decides to undertake the exercise, it should first be undertaken with regard to digital media”

The only plausible reason for this request to apex court is linked to the fact that any broader guideline would jeopardise the vested political interest of the government and would put a fetter on other mainstream channels from carrying on their communal agenda. Restraining the mainstream media would impede the design of the government. Yet another quite significant aspect incorporated in the request is the Centre’s suggestion to SC to confine the matter to Sudarshan News show, which claimed to “expose” the “infiltration of Muslims” in the civil services.

Quite intriguing while the Supreme Court described the programme as an attempt to vilify the Muslim community, the Modi government described it as expose. The bench, which includes Justices Indu Malhotra and K.M. Joseph in its order in fact had written: “It appears to the court that the object of the programme is to vilify the Muslim community and make it responsible for an insidious attempt to infiltrate the civil services…. Any attempt to vilify a community must be viewed with disfavour….” The request of the Centre in a way has been an attempt to decry the order of the court.

In an affidavit filed in court, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said the issue of “balancing between the journalist freedom and responsible journalism is a field already occupied either by the statutory provisions made by Parliament or by the judgments” of the court. Will it respond even while why some of the mainstream media channels have been indulging in vilification of the Muslims. The recent incident has been the attempt of the media to malign the Tabliki group which was outright decried by the Delhi High Court as well as Bombay High Court. Since there has been statutory provisions to stop vilification will the government let people know what action it initiated against the media houses which have been involved in the nefarious design.

The government suggestion “in view of the issue having already received attention of Parliament, as well as of this Hon’ble Court, the present petition be confined to only one channel namely Sudarshan TV, and this Hon’ble Court may not undertake the exercise of laying down any further guidelines with or without appointment of an Amicus or a Committee of persons as Amicus” is certainly not of the nature of advice. It speaks more. No doubt the fact remains “each case shall have to be decided on a case to case basis” but there is no harm if the court undertakes a broader exercise. After all what Sudarshan TV aired earlier certainly could not be described as responsible journalism. Had it been a fair reporting the apex court on September 15 must not have restrained Sudarshan News from airing the remaining episodes of its show.

In fact for some time the apex court was being requested by well-meaning people to evolve a mechanism to stop this nature of dirty game. For obvious reasons the SC had hinted that it planned to set up a panel to suggest guidelines for the electronic media. If the government intended that journalists and media must have liberty to express freely and in a responsible manner, it should have asked the wrong doers to restraint. No doubt in a democratic set up the fettering of the media is not desirable. But something has to be done to stop the menace. In this perspective the suggestion of the apex court to appoint a committee of five distinguished citizens to recommend standards for the electronic media should be welcomed. This is enough to allay any misgiving. SC’s suggestion certainly not be construed as a move to criminalise the dissent. What was being aired was certainly not be construed as dissent.

The Sanghi media dislikes the idea of Muslims getting better educational opportunities and build a robust career. Already Sachar committee report underlines the poor educational and professional achievement of the Muslims. The government to bring the digital media under the ambit of the guideline is a ploy to gag them. Of late the digital media has turned vocal critic of the government. A number of digital media portals have been doing serious stories. It said that “while in a mainstream media the publication/telecast is a one-time act, the digital media has faster reach from wider range of viewership/readership and has the potential to become viral because of several electronic applications like WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook”.

It is strange that the Modi government, the biggest beneficiary of the diversionary witch-hunt and stigmatisation, bats for ’journalistic freedom’. The concern of the court could be understood from the observation of Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, heading a three-judge bench, while passing the injunction: “We are concerned…. When you say students who are part of Jamia Millia are part of a group to infiltrate the civil services, we can’t tolerate. As the Supreme Court of the nation, we cannot allow you to say that Muslims are infiltrating the civil services. You cannot say that the journalist has absolute freedom doing this.”

The only intention of the Centre behind filing the petition is to protect its cohorts as the design has been badly exposed. It was not without reason that Justice Joseph had to observe: “We need to look at the ownership of the visual media. The entire shareholding pattern of the company must be on site for public. The revenue model of that company should also be put up to check if the government is putting more ads in one and less in another.” The court remarked “Media can’t fall foul of standards prescribed by themselves. Next, in debates, one needs to see the role of the anchor. How one listens when others speak…. But check in the TV debates the percentage of time taken by the anchor to speak. They mute the speaker and ask questions.The freedom of media is on behalf of the citizens.”

Justice Chandrachud: “The power of the electronic media is huge. The electronic media can become the focal point by targeting particular communities or groups. The anchors’ grievance is that a particular group is gaining entry into civil services. How insidious is this!” No doubt this insidious charges of the TV channel also denigrates the credibility of the UPSC and turns it suspect in the eyes of the common Indians. How can such aspersions and allegations be inflicted against the UPSC without any factual basis? Can such programmes be allowed in a free society? The court was absolutely right in seeking to know “Reputations can be damaged, image can be tarnished. How to control this? State cannot do this. Shouldn’t there be enforceable standards that the media profess itself to so that Article 19(1)(a) is upheld?

A highly critical Justice Chandrachud told the defence lawyer “Your client is doing a disservice to the nation and is not accepting India is a melting point of diverse culture. Your client needs to exercise his freedom with caution,”

It is worth noticing that the same Modi government in March this year had approached the apex court with the request to issue a direction that no media outlet print, publish or telecast anything on coronavirus without first ascertaining facts from the mechanism provided by the government. It said that any deliberate or unintended fake or inaccurate reporting either in electronic, print, social media or web portals has a serious and inevitable potential of causing panic in large sections of the society.

The government did not like the questioning of facts by the journalists, though the fact is the journalist do not drae to put a question to any minister forget the prime minister, Narendra Modi. At that time the government had said “When journalists operate, they need to work around the right to fair comment. See criminal investigation, the media often focuses only on one part of the investigation.”

It was really sad for the media that on September 15, the apex court had to make the journalists and the media realise that the kind of show which was aired by Sudarshan TV makes people shut their TVs. “If the media fails to realise this, they will be out of business. In the end, quality matters, whether it is a show, a company in which we intend to invest or a person we wish to trust”,said the court

Justice Chandrachud: “Let the best within the nation suggest measures which we can help debate on our platform and then arrive at standards…. Now an anchor is targeting one particular community. To say we are a democracy, we needto have certain standards in place.”

Justice Chandrachud (to Divan, the advocate for the TV channel): “Your client is doing a disservice to the nation and is not accepting India is a melting point of diverse cultures. Your client needs to exercise his freedom with caution.”

Divan: “I have been instructed that it is an investigative story. Rest we need to file an affidavit.”

Nisha Bhambani: “We are for the News Broadcasters Association.”

Justice Chandrachud: “We need to ask you if you exist apart from the letterhead. What do you do when a parallel criminal investigation goes on in media and reputation is tarnished?”

Mehta: “We cannot compartmentalise electronic and print media.”

Justice Chandrachud: “People might not read newspapers today but watch television. Again, reach of local papers in local languages is more than mainstream English newspapers. Watching TV has an entertainment value whereas newspaper has none. That’s why we want to have standards.”

Mehta: “For example, I run a YouTube channel. How can my funding be ascertained?”

Justice Joseph: “Rule 6 of the programme code notes that cable TV programmes cannot show anything that targets a particular religion or a community.”

Mehta: “Your Lordships must have seen those programmes where ‘Hindu terror’ was highlighted. The question is to what extent can courts control the publication of content.”

Justice Chandrachud: “The mediums have changed. Now Internet is a vexed area as one can operate it from anywhere.”

Mehta: “We are looking at electronic media as these companies are the ones which are based in India. We cannot say we won’t regulate electronic media just because we cannot control the Internet.

“During the lockdown there was a web portal which carried a show as to how the lockdown will lead to food scarcity and food riot, thus leading to migration. I don’t consider it less serious than a threat to communal disharmony.”

Justice Joseph: “The problem with electronic media is all about TRPs, thus leading to more and more sensationalism. So many things masquerade as a form of right.”

Mehta: “It needs to be seen if a potential accused can be given a platform to air the defence.”

Advocate Shadan Farasat (appearing for some petitioners): “This show has completely vilified the image of Muslims in the civil services. They have been called a terror. Hate speech is something where right to respond is not possible. How does one respond to a statement that Muslims should not be in the civil services?”

(Divan seeks two weeks’ time to place on record all the material relating to the telecast.)

Justice Joseph: “Will you defer the airing till then?”

Divan: “Not at all. I am not making any such concession.”

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