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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Sorry, Your Lordship

Show vilifies Muslims but prior restraint sets a dangerous precedent when dissent is being criminalised — and courts are fumbling.

By: Editorial |
Updated: September 17, 2020 9:00:16 am
Afghan peace dealThe Serum Institute of India, one of the laboratories at the forefront of vaccine development in the country, has reportedly said that it will apply for permission for emergency use of the preventive in a fortnight.

Abench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and K M Joseph have canned Sudarshan TV headman Suresh Chavhanke’s awful show “Bindas Bol” (literally, an exhortation to “Speak Carelessly”). Promoted online with #UPSC_Jihad, the show vilifies Muslims, accusing them of a campaign to infiltrate the bureaucracy, and undermines the Union Public Service Commission, by the implication that it offers unfair advantage to the community. Dodgy on facts and analysis, it is informed by a “wanton disregard of the truth”, as the Supreme Court very accurately observed, and is premised on a denial of the reality of a plural India. The bench called out the show for what it was — hateful propaganda masquerading as analysis. The court was spot on — especially when Sudarshan TV is not alone in this shameful corner. Through the months of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, and in the initial days of COVID-19, with the exception of a few, TV news channels revelled in an inglorious orgy of partisan deception, vilification and rumour-mongering.

News will be weaponised by those in power when they have willing accomplices in TV studios but prior restraint, as the Supreme Court itself has repeatedly underlined, is a solution that has ramifications as disturbing as the problem it’s trying to address. As Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta wondered in court, to what extent can the media be regulated by other institutions? On August 28, the Court had rightly declined to impose a “pre-broadcast interlocutory injunction” against the offending show. On September 9, the Centre permitted transmission of an episode of #UPSC_Jihad, with the caveat that it must not violate the Programme Code. But this week, the bench observed that circumstances had changed and “the drift, tenor and content of the episodes is to bring [a] community into public hatred and disrepute,” which violates the Code.

The court’s apprehension is legitimate: Hateful memes can spread like wildfire across social media and promote, even incite violence. But, as Justice Chandrachud said, perhaps self-regulation — an oxymoron it may be — needs to be explored more rigorously. Giving prior restraint the imprimatur of the highest court, the bench sets a dangerous precedent at a time when a lynch mob is just one comment away. Motivated parties would only have to file an objection in court for restraint to be clamped, prior to airing the programme, until the matter is heard — and a court could rule for restraint to continue. Since news has a very short shelf life that is counted in hours, a mere allegation made in court could kill a programme. Significantly, the Court took a dig at the News Broadcasters’ Association whose remit includes legal, ethical and regulatory concerns. It asked if the body exists only in the form of its letterhead. In that aside, the Court tacitly indicated where one solution may lie.

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