The Bombay High Court on Monday asked the Centre why it does not have a statutory mechanism for content generated on electronic media similar to the Press Council of India, which regulates the print media in the country.
Referring to absence of action over media trial, the court said, “There are so many orders passed by the Supreme Court. Nobody cares.”
The division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish S Kulkarni asked the Centre: “Is there a statutory mechanism for broadcasters? When you have a Press Council of India for print media, why do not you have a similar mechanism for electronic media? Why should they have an open hand?”
Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh, representing the government, told the court, “It is not as if the government is not doing anything. It does take action on complaints received against channels. There are other mechanisms. It is to ensure that the media remains independent. But ultimately, the government cannot control everything. The press has freedom and its rights.”
Seeking responses from the Centre and the broadcasters’ associations, the court posted further hearing to Wednesday.
The division bench is hearing multiple PILs related to media coverage in the probe into actor Sushant Singh Rajpuit’s death, including one by activists Nilesh Navlakha, Mahibub D Shaikh and Subhash Chander Chaba through senior counsel Devadatt Kamat along with advocates Rajesh Inamdar and Shashwat Anand. Their PIL states that the nature of reporting by TV channels is one of “sensationalism”, which is adversely impacting the ongoing CBI probe into the case.
The court is also hearing other PILs filed by eight former senior police officers from Maharashtra and an NGO, seeking restraining orders against “media trial” in the case.
In their plea, the activists submitted that news channels need to scrupulously follow the Programme Code as per the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, and the Centre has to issue relevant directions in this regard.
Senior counsel Kamat argued that when a matter is pending investigation, or is at the stage of trial, publishing material that tends to portray a particular outcome amounts to contempt, and action is required against such acts. He said that when complaints were made to the Centre regarding TV media’s coverage of the Rajput death case, instead of complying with its own mechanisms to deal with violation of Programme Code the government sent them to private organisations such as the News Broadcasters Association (NBA).
“When the Central government has a regime in place, where is the question of it abdicating its duties and asking private self-appointed organisations to look into acts of egregiousness,” Kamat asked.
He also alleged that information was leaked to the media by investigating agencies probing into the case. “The question is whether this outsourcing (of) responsibility to private bodies is permissible, or whether government authorities have to be responsible to enforce what the law provides,” he submitted.
Kamat also argued that “media trial” violates an accused person’s right to life with dignity and personal liberty, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, and also amounts to interference in administration of justice.
The court asked ASG Singh on action taken over complaints filed in the case.
The court also referred to an affidavit filed by the Centre, stating that the Union I&B Ministry had earlier submitted that the question of media trial in the case was referred to NBA and the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) for a probe. The affidavit stated that the government has an inter-ministerial committee to review decisions after the complaint is dealt with by these authorities. The bench sought to know who can impose penalties against news channels and said this was not clarified in the Centre’s affidavit in reply to the pleas.
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