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“The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinions without which a democratic electorate [Government] cannot make responsible judgments. Newspapers being purveyors of news and views having a bearing on public administration very often carry material which would not be palatable to Governments and other authorities.”
This is was what the Supreme Court held in the landmark judgment of Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) (P) Ltd. v. Union of India while expounding the importance of the freedom of the press.
Thirty years later, it appears that the government has still been unable to internalize this ideal. Last week, the government issued notice to 3 news channels – NDTV, ABP News and Aajtak for their “disrespect to the President and the Judiciary” in the coverage of the Yakub Memon trial. Apart from this, the programmes have also allegedly “promoted anti-national attitudes” in expressing dissent against the execution of Memon.
So under what law have these notices been issued?
The following sub-clauses of Rule 6 (1) of the Cable Television Network Rules have been invoked:
(d) Contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half-truths
(e) Is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which promote anti-national attitudes;
(g) Contains aspersions against the integrity of the President and Judiciary
As is evident, the wording of sub-clauses (d) and (e) is so vague and subjective that the government can quite easily put a clamp on any broadcast as and when it feels like.
Furthermore, the obvious question to be asked is why the government felt the need to protect the image of the judiciary when there are ample provisions for courts to take suo motu action? The courts have never hesitated to apply the Contempt of Courts Act whenever the need has arisen.
According to media law expert Saurav Datta, the government’s actions reek of double-standards.
“The notices expose the government’s cynicism. On one hand, see its stance in the NJAC case, and how sometimes the AG’s arguments have bordered on calumny. Why, then, in Yakub’s case, the sudden enthusiasm to enforce deference to the judiciary?”
Worse, this is not the first time these provisions have been used in recent times. This March, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an advisory prohibiting news channels from airing India’s Daughter, the BBC documentary on the Nirbhaya incident.
In fact, similar provisions were invoked in the I&B Ministry’s advisory as well as the Metropolitan Magistrate’s order imposing the ban on the documentary. And it is these very provisions that are now under challenge before the Delhi High Court.
In one of the petitions, filed by journalist Rajni George, the provisions are challenged as being ultra vires the Constitution because they are,
“… vague, loosely-defined and overbroad; likely to lead to a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech by the media on the one hand and the right of the citizenry to be informed and participate in the democratic process on the other…”
This matter, along with petitions filed by law students Kritika Padode and Vibhor Anand, have come up before Chief Justice Rohini, with the next hearing to be held on October 7.
It will be interesting to see whether the Delhi High Court acquiesces to read down the provisions that empower a government to ban broadcasts at the drop of a hat.