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[BREAKING] Regulate digital media first before TV or Electronic media, Centre tells Supreme Court in plea against Sudarshan TV'S UPSC Jihad

The Centre has maintained that the area of balancing freedom of speech and responsible journalism is already governed by statutory provisions and past judgments.

Debayan Roy

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has informed the Supreme Court that if the court undertakes an exercise to regulate media then it should be "digital media first" as it has a faster reach from a wider range of viewership.

A three-judge bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, KM Joseph and Indu Malhotra had directed Sudarshan TV to defer the broadcast of its programme touted as a ''big expose on the conspiracy" regarding Muslims "infiltrating government service", until further orders.

The Court also called for the setting up of a committee of five citizens who can come up with standards for electronic media. It said,

"We don't want any persons of politically divisive nature and we need members who are are of commendable stature."

However, centre in its 33 page affidavit makes it clear that it is the digital media which the court should look at first and then TV or electronic media as the latter is governed by cases and precedents.

It is submitted that while in a mainstream media [whether electronic or print], 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, tweeter, facebook. Considering the serious impact and the potential, it is desirable that if this Hon'ble Court decides to undertake the exercise, it should first be undertaken with regard to digital media as there already exists sufficient framework and judicial pronouncements with regard to electronic media and print media

reads the reply

Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has further stated that if the top court considers it appropriate to undertake to exercise of laying down standards to help regulate the media, "then there is no justification to confine this exercise only to mainstream electronic media."

"The media includes mainstream electronic media, mainstream print media as well as a parallel media namely digital print media and digital web-based news portal and you tube channels as well as ‘Over The Top’ platforms," reads the Centre's affidavit.

The Centre has maintained that the area of balancing freedom of speech and responsible journalism is already governed by statutory provisions and past judgments.

The Centre has made it clear that since the present petition is confined to only one channel namely Sudarshan T.V, thus the top 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."

Placing reliance on Common Cause vs Union of India, 2018, the government has argued that a broad precedent already exists laying down standards for responsible journalism and that it is a "correct legal proposition" which requires no further general exercise to he undertaken "merely based upon one episode or few episodes of one channel namely Sudarshan TV."

News Broadcasters Association has also filed an affidavit in the top court in this matter and has submitted that matters dealing with similar issues regarding allegations of communalisation of a particular community is pending before a CJI SA Bobde led bench in the cases of Reepak Kansal vs UOI and Jamiat Ulema I Hind vs UOI and that NBA is a party in both the cases.

NBA has stated that they have the News Broadcasting Standard Regulations (NBSR) which contain the scheme of setting up a completely independent regulatory body News Broadcasting Standard Authority (NBSA).

Further it states that if NBSA finds that any broadcast falls foul of their code of ethics or rules then an enquiry is held after which the channel is heard. If found guilty, a maximum fine of 1 lac is imposed on the broadcaster.

They are also referred to the Minsitry of Information and Broadcasting for revocation or suspension of licenses. The broadcasters are also censured or admonished.

NBA further states that electronic media is different than print media and there already exists rules and laws governing the electronic media.

During the earlier hearing, Justice Joseph made an important observation that the ownership of media channels must be disclosed.

“We need to look at the ownership of the visual media. Entire shareholding pattern of the company must be on site for public. Revenue model of that company should also be put up to check if government is putting more ads in one and less in another."

Justice KM Joseph

On the topic of the Sudarshan TV broadcast itself, Justice Chandrachud observed,

"The anchor’s grievance is that a particular group is gaining entry into civil services. How insidious is this? Such insidious charges also put a question mark on the UPSC exams. Aspersions have been cast on UPSC. Such allegations are without any factual basis, how can this be allowed? Can such programs be allowed in a free society?"

The Court went on to ask,

"Shouldn't there be enforceable standards that the media profess itself to so that Article 19(1)(a) is upheld?"

The Court had earlier refused to impose a pre-broadcast ban on the controversial Sudarshan TV programme. It said that it has to be circumspect in imposing a prior restraint on publication or the airing of views.

Advocate Firoz Iqbal Khan had moved the Court, submitting transcripts of the show to prove that the program set to be aired today would be derogatory to Muslims entering the profession of civil services.

The petitioner had submitted that the airing of views in the course of the programme would violate the Programme Code under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995, together with the Code of Ethics and News Broadcasting Standards Regulations.

A group of former civil servants too moved Supreme Court to intervene as applicants in the petition by Khan stating that the Supreme Court must lay down an authoritative pronouncement on hate speech.

The intervention application filed through Advocate Anas Tanwir states that the Court had expressed an intention to consider the balance between free speech and other constitutional values that were raised in the instant case, and that it was important for the Court to do so.

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