Television channels in India are creating divisions in the society since such channels are driven by agenda and compete to sensationalise news and act as per the dictates of their funders, the Supreme Court said on Friday.
A bench of Justices KM Joseph and BV Nagarathna asked the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) and the Central government how it can control such broadcasts.
"Channels are basically competing with each other. They sensationalize it. How do you control this? Freedom of speech and expression is important. Problem with freedom is it is about the audience. Can the audience dish out or understand the agenda. Agenda is serving someone else. Then there is money behind the channel. The point also is who puts money, they will dictate," Justice Joseph remarked.
Such channels are creating fissures in the society, the bench added.
"When you claim freedom of speech and expression, you must act like you deserve it. Otherwise what dignity is left for us," Justice Joseph remarked.
The Court also suggested stringent measures on news anchors who promote or indulge in hate speech.
"Thus, if fine is there on anchors they will know that their is a price to pay for this. Anchors can be taken off (air) too," the Court said.
The Central government responded by saying that it is planning to introduce comprehensive amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) to tackle hate speech.
"We are contemplating a separate amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code. That is the stand of the Union of India," Additional Solicitor General (ASG) KM Nataraj submitted on behalf of the Central government.
The Court was hearing a batch of pleas seeking steps to be taken against hate speech incidents.
In July last year, the top court had directed the Union Home Ministry to prepare a detailed chart outlining States' compliance with the general directions issued by it in the judgments of Shakti Vahini and Tehseen Poonawalla, towards curbing hate speech.
In September, the apex court had taken a very dim view of the functioning of mainstream television news channels in the country, stating that they often give space for hate speech and then escape without any sanctions. Further, politicians benefit the most out of their hate speech getting platformed.
In October, the Court had ordered the Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand Police to take suo motu action in cases of hate speech without looking at the religion of the offenders.
Justices Joseph and Hrishikesh Roy had expressed shock at some of the statements and hate speech made against minority communities during recent religious congregations. The bench had emphasised that the police have to take suo motu action in such cases in the future, without waiting for complaints.
During today's hearing, the Court took a dim view of NBSA's functioning.
"Unfortunately, you are not doing anything," the Court said.
Senior Counsel Arvind Datar, appearing for NBSA, said that certain channels like Sudarshan TV and Republic TV do not fall within its jurisdiction.
This was in response to submissions by petitioners' counsel Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde and advocate Nizam Pasha highlighting certain broadcasts made by Sudarshan News anchor Suresh Chavhanke.
"The only problem is Sudarshan TV and Republic TV who are not part of our network and that is why they are not under our jurisdiction. Our code should be made a part of program code and then it can apply across the board," the NBSA counsel said.
The bench also asked what action can be taken against news anchors when they themselves fuel such hate.
"If the anchor of a tv program is themselves part of the problem then what. NBSA should not be biased. One sided program cannot happen," the bench underscored.
In a live program, the fairness of the program depends on the anchor, the bench added.
The Court emphasised that media persons should know how to conduct themselves.
"These cases are mostly about communal and religious issues. people in the media must learn how to conduct and they must realise they occupy positions of great strength and who watches them cannot immediately find out what is true," the Court remarked.
Advocate Vishnu Shankar Jain, appearing for Suresh Chavhanke, sought to highlight the hate speeches made by Zakir Naik in 2013.
Jain said that no action was taken against the same.
The Court made it clear that the case being heard by them is meant to deal with all hate speeches irrespective of the offender's religion.
"We are irrespective of religion and this is an adjudicatory platform. Crime is against the society," Justice Joseph underscored.
Justice Joseph then asked the ASG about the details of the amendments proposed to CrPC.
"You are saying amendment will be done and that existing offences not enough. Law Commission also suggested this. So what are you trying to do?"
"Comprehensive amendment to CrPC. We are taking inputs from stakeholders. This has to go to the parliament and I cannot contemplate action of legislature," the ASG responded.
The Court in its order recorded the submission of the Centre.
"The Central government is pondering over steps to be taken to deal with the problems arising before the court including a legislation to tackle the same," the Court said in its order.
The Court also asked the States to make their position clear on the broader issues projected in the case.
"Amicus to submit draft guidelines in the case on next date of the hearing," the order added.