At last, a ray of hope. On September 16, the Supreme Court granted interim stay, preventing Sudarshan TV from further telecasting the programme “UPSC Jihad”. As the matter is sub-judice, it would not be fair to comment either on the content or the quality of the programme. The Court analysed the programme in the context of our constitutional edifice founded on values of co-existence of communities, India being a melting pot of diverse civilisations and cultures. The petition, seeking to prohibit its broadcast, was moved by five distinguished citizens who also hoped to persuade the court to draw up standards for programmes in the electronic media. This ray of hope will be realised if the Supreme Court mandates the setting-up of Citizens’ Panel for TV channels to ascertain whether the programmes being viewed conform to the standards that the court may prescribe and evolve in the context of our constitutional values. The road ahead is a slippery slope. While we cherish the freedom of speech as a constitutional right, those who exercise it, have also to conform to their constitutional responsibilities. The parameters for such standards which deal with the right to free speech and the responsibilities involved in exercising it have to be carefully engrafted, ensuring that one is not eclipsed by the other.
The government’s submissions in this regard were telling. It was contended that any guidelines framed would affect the freedom of the press, leading to disastrous consequences, amounting to exercising control over the media. For this government to espouse the cause of freedom of the press and pretend to be its votary is ironic, given the perception that the present establishment has sought to silence and control the media far too often, and that too unabashedly.
We know that mainstream electronic media can be controlled, disregarding existing statutory guidelines. The fourth estate was conceived to act as a watchdog of the three organs of the state. In recent years, significant players in mainstream electronic media, instead of discharging their responsibilities as watchdogs, have passed the test of being lap dogs with flying colours. If the fourth estate functions in tandem with the ideology of the ruling class, extolling virtues of its policies and taking forward its agenda through slanging matches on screen, where the anchor acts as a votary of the ruling establishment’s policies and positions, such an outcome has certain unsavoury consequences. First, the voice of dissent is not allowed any space in mainstream electronic media. It is silenced whenever a contrary point of view is expressed. Second, the shouting brigade, singing the tune of the anchor, is given undue space and time which leads to a biased outcome. Third, the bloodbath on such channels, leads to an increase in TRPs, enriching the business houses funding these channels. Fourth, is the reach of such mainstream media whose salacious appetites are whetted by display of diatribes polluting minds, thereby serving the cause of a particular ideological mindset. Fifth, the increase in TRPs results in increased advertisement revenues, which again fuels such bloodbaths for yet another encounter. Opposition to setting standards for programmes in the electronic media as that will impact “freedom of the press”, in fact, means that the government does not wish the Court to regulate the war-cries of ideological mindsets polluting young minds and serving desired political objectives.
Democratic freedoms exercised by all mediums disseminating news are the cornerstone of our republic. However, such mediums have onerous responsibilities to discharge towards the following outcomes. First, they ensure that all points of views are heard for the public to be informed — the essence of freedom of speech. Second, it saves young minds from being polluted. Third, no ideological mindset is wantonly served through the media. Fourth , anchors do not fuel agendas, which strike at the root of our democratic values.
That apart, it is imperative that the structure of media, which allows for such outcomes is also looked at in the context of our constitutional freedoms. Perhaps, free speech is not always “free” since it is fuelled by commercial interests. Free speech is tainted if business houses who wish to protect their empires are willing to compromise with governments. We have moved far beyond the age when print media would fund itself through contributions so that independent opinions could be shared. Our national leaders would write editorials to ensure that independent voices of those seeking freedom are heard. But in the 21st century, often the voices of those seeking to silence free speech, particularly in the electronic media are heard.
The shift has taken place because to run a TV channel requires enormous resources. While the voices that pollute are part of a significant section of mainstream media, those who have no platform for exercising free speech are now part of the social media. That is yet another problem which the Court will have to deal with in the near future. The nature of social media is such that even there, armies are employed to serve partisan ends: Independent voices are sought to be silenced. But social media is perhaps even more powerful because content is transmitted at breakneck speed. Fake news, images that churn stomachs, have resulted in mayhem in the digital world. While the print media is regulated by law, social media platforms epitomise lawlessness. They cannot be regulated as many operate under the mask of anonymity. Global players make money while the victims of social media have no recourse to law.
It is time for the state to ensure that our republic is not defaced and damaged by shrill voices and agendas masquerading in the name of free speech. It is time for the courts to stand up and hold the scales of justice, making sure that they are balanced evenly. Otherwise, the tilt may endanger freedom itself.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 21, 2020 under the title ‘A slippery slope’. The writer, a senior Congress leader, is a former Union minister
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