September 16, 2020 4:18:52 am
The Supreme Court on Tuesday restrained Sudarshan News from broadcasting remaining episodes of a show that the channel claims “exposes” the “infiltration of Muslims” in the civil services.
The purpose of the show was to “vilify the Muslim community”, the court said, and observed that it had made arbitrary claims “in wanton disregard of the truth”.
“At this stage, prima facie, it does appear to the Court that the intent, object and purpose of the episodes which have been telecast is to vilify the Muslim community. An insidious attempt has been made to insinuate that the community is involved in a conspiracy to infiltrate the civil services. Several statements in the episodes, which have been drawn to the attention of the Court are not just palpably erroneous but have been made in wanton disregard of the truth”, a three-judge Bench headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud said.
On August 28, the court had declined to impose a “pre-broadcast interlocutory injunction” on the show titled ‘Bindass Bol’, presented by its editor-in-chief Suresh Chavhanke.
An episode of the show was broadcast on September 10, a day after the central government gave it the green light on condition that there is no “violation of the programme code”.
On Tuesday, the Bench, also comprising Justices Indu Malhotra and K M Joseph, said that there “is a change in circumstance” from August 28 when it had declined to stay the broadcast.
“The drift, tenor and content of the episodes is to bring the community into public hatred and disrepute,” the court said in its order. It pointed out that the Programme Code stipulates that no programme should be carried which “contains attack on religions or communities or visuals or words”, or has content that is defamatory, false, or reflective of “half-truths and suggestive innuendos”.
“The edifice of a democratic society committed to the rule of law under a regime of constitutional rights, values and duties is founded on the co-existence of communities,” the court said. “India is a melting pot of civilizations, cultures, religions and languages. Any attempt to vilify a religious community must be viewed with grave disfavour by this Court as the custodian of constitutional values. Its duty to enforce constitutional values demands nothing less”.
The court noted that the show, which the channel had been promoting with the hashtag “UPSC_Jihad”, contained factually incorrect statements regarding the upper age limit and number of attempts allowed to Muslims in exams conducted by the Union Public Service Commission.
The order came at the end of an animated hearing during which Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta wondered to what extent the media be regulated, and pointed out that there had been shows on “Hindu terror” in the past.
Justice Chandrachud said the electronic media has extraordinarily broad access, and can be used to target communities. “This programme was so insidious,” he said. “Citizens from a particular community who go through the same examinations and get interviewed by the same panel…,” he observed, adding that the show also cast aspersions on the UPSC examination.
“How do we deal with these issues? Can this be tolerated in a free society?… Is this truly exercise of Article 19(1)(a) (the right to freedom of speech and expression)?”
Senior Advocate Shyam Divan, who appeared for the channel, said he would strongly oppose any stay on the programme, as it was a question of freedom of speech. He argued that “there is a foreign funding issue” that the programme claims to expose, and that the court should come to any conclusion only after seeing the entire programme, and not a few extracts.
Justice Chandrachud said: “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”.
Justice Joseph underlined that “No freedom is absolute, not even journalistic freedom”. He added that Rule 6 of the Programme Code notes that cable TV programmes cannot show anything that targets a particular religion or a community.
When Justice Chandrachud said, “This is not a freedom of speech issue. When you say there is a conspiracy by Muslims to flood the civil services…”, Divan responded: “We are not saying that.”
Justice Chandrachud persisted: “When you say students of Jamia are part of a conspiracy to infiltrate civil services, that is not permissible. You cannot target one community and brand them in a particular manner.” Justice Joseph added: “That too with factually incorrect statements.”
Advocate Gautam Bhatia, who appeared for a group of former civil servants seeking an authoritative ruling on hate speech, said: “Hate speech undermines the idea of a free marketplace of ideas. The targeted community is deprived of the opportunity to respond or defend.” He favoured a restraint order given the nature of the show’s content.
Earlier in the hearing, Justice Joseph, commenting generally on TV shows, said: “I see many channels mute people when they’re giving their opinion and it goes against the anchor’s views. This is so unfair… We need debates where others should be allowed to speak as against the anchor only.”
The court took a dig at the News Broadcasters’ Association, saying: “We need to ask you if you (NBA) exist apart from the letterhead. What do you do when a parallel criminal investigation goes on in media and reputations are tarnished?”
SG Mehta argued it would be “disastrous” for any democracy to try to control the media. “The right of a journalist cannot be taken away.” Rabid things were being said from all sides, he said – “but the question is, can it be regulated?”
“Your lordships must have seen those programmes where “Hindu terror” was highlighted. The questions is to what extent can courts control the publication of content,” he asked.
Justice Chandrachud said the matter perhaps gave the occasion to look at whether self-regulation could be put forth. Journalists must be governed by certain principles, he said.
To Mehta’s argument that one cannot compartmentalise electronic and print media for regulation, Justice Chandrachud said that even those who may not read newspapers watched television. “Watching TV also has an entertainment value whereas a newspaper has none. That’s why we want to have standards”.
Justice Joseph said the problem with electronic media was that it was all about TRPs, thus leading to more and more sensationalism.
Mehta pointed out that during the lockdown, a web portal had a show on how it would lead to food scarcity and food riots and migration. “I don’t consider it less serious than a threat to communal disharmony”.
The court said, “We cannot say we won’t regulate electronic media just because we cannot control Internet”.
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