Updated: September 4, 2021 8:44:12 am
Chief Justice of India NV Ramana is right — and has done the right thing — to flag the “problem” that “everything in this country is shown with a communal angle by a section of the media.” The country is going to get a bad name, he said. But the risk is not merely reputational. The CJI-led bench was hearing a batch of petitions that sought action against news channels for the ways in which their coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat meeting at the Nizamuddin Markaz last year was sensationalised. Indeed, the Tablighi Jamaat was demonised, and an attempt was made to manipulate the fears already stoked by a little known virus to deepen communal polarisation. The prime suspects were TV channels who have decided to play megaphones for those in power even if it means amplifying hate. In this context, however, the court’s lament about “no control on web portals” and platforms without “accountability”, may unfortunately be an instance of not framing the problem in its full complexity. In response, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who speaks for the Centre, referred, as solution, to the controversial Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, that have been challenged. If the court articulated an incomplete question, the Centre has pointed to the wrong answer.
There are no easy solutions, no statist quick fixes, to the problem that has provoked the anguished reaction of the court. The communalisation of news is partly because of decisions taken in some newsrooms and boardrooms to do so. But arguing for controls by the state is to simply ignore the larger context and political eco-system, while risking the potential cramping of the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. The state is part of the problem here, not the solution. After all, those sections of the media that purvey the most vicious and divisive images and narratives, and must therefore be cast most squarely in the dock for communalisation, are those that also proudly fashion themselves as spokespersons of the establishment and allow themselves to be weaponised by it. This problem will not go away, then, if only the state tightens a law, or sharpens a rule. Contrary to the Centre’s defence of the new IT Rules, which attempts to draw a line between freedom of the press and the rights of the audience “who believe and act upon misleading news”, the truth is that the press and the audience are on the same side — in a democracy, the freedom of the press is an essential and inextricable part of the people’s right to know.
The CJI’s anguish, however, could yet serve a larger purpose, by starting a wider conversation. One which acknowledges the problem in its complexities. And one which does not hesitate to call out — and forthrightly address — all the complicities.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 4, 2021 under the title ‘Hate news’.
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