It is a truth universally acknowledged that prior permission constrains the constitutional ideal of free speech. The principle was established in case law in 1950, when the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brij Bhushan and Another vs State of Delhi rubbished the idea of pre-censorship. There should have been no need for the court to lay down the law again 67 years later. But then, there is no harm in driving the point home, at a time when bullying has become a feature of public discussion and debate. To that extent, it was good that Prashant Bhushan and Common Cause took the matter to court, as part of a clutch of public interest matters. The Supreme Court is the most reliable custodian of citizens’ freedoms. There are indeed other guardians, most significantly, online activists, pressure groups and other elements of civil society. However, each has a specific agenda and considers the matter of freedom through the lens of its own interest. Only the Supreme Court has the independence and the stature to guard free speech in the abstract, in its entirety.
While Bhushan had argued for a regulatory body for media content, the Supreme Court bench led by the Chief Justice of India has clarified that neither the judiciary, nor the executive could have oversight of media content. Courts can be approached only after telecast or publication, by parties who may feel injured. There is a common sense basis to this argument. The law intervenes in other matters on the basis of a complaint about an offence having been cmmitted. There is no reason why speech acts should be treated differently.
Demands for the regulation of content are logically absurd because self-regulation is the only practical strategy, a position which the central government and the News Broadcasters Association have supported. Reporters, newsroom staff and their editors should be trusted to do their job until and unless they breach that trust. If that happens, internal mechanisms should suffice to address the issue. At the next level, there are
industry bodies which can exert real pressure on errant members. While the government has claimed the ability to monitor 1,500 news channels in real time by the end of the year, it should limit itself to the observer’s role. Intervention in the absence of a complaint would amount to impugning Article 19 of the Constitution, as the Supreme Court had explained way back in 1950.