In Sudarshan TV case, SC says 'extremely concerned' with balancing dignity, free speech; next hearing on 23 Sept

In a two-hour hearing, the bench said constitutional values and human dignity need to be protected but the court cannot “become the enforcers of programme code”

FP Staff September 21, 2020 22:20:05 IST
In Sudarshan TV case, SC says 'extremely concerned' with balancing dignity, free speech; next hearing on 23 Sept

File image of Supreme Court of India. Reuters

The Supreme Court, hearing the Sudarshan TV case in which it has imposed a pre-telecast ban on the channel's 'UPSC Jihad' programmes, on Monday said it is extremely concerned with balancing the right to dignity of a community with that of free speech, according to several media reports.

As per Live Law, Justice DY Chandrachud, heading the apex court bench also comprising justices Indu Malhotra and KM Joseph, said, "If it was a balance between free speech and dignity of an individual, we can tell him to file a civil suit. But here the balance is to be drawn between free speech and a community."

Justice Chandrachud, pondering the nature and extent of the apex court's injunction, further remarked as per Live Law: “The issue is... what should be the nature of an injunction? Whether it should be a blanket injunction and if the court does issue it would it also injunct protected speech or should the court restrict him only to a certain extent?"

As per PTI, in a two-hour hearing, the bench said constitutional values and human dignity need to be protected but the court cannot “become the enforcers of programme code”.

Sudarshan TV, at the outset, urged the apex court to lift the stay on the telecast of the remaining six episodes of the controversial programme, saying the channel would abide by laws. “Do you think that you followed programme code and whether you will telecast the remaining shows in the same tone and tenor?” the bench asked as per PTI.

“Yes, we have followed the programme code and compiled the law and the remaining episodes will also be on the same line. Please see the four episodes through my client's eyes,” lawyer Vishnu Shankar Jain, appearing for Sudarshan TV Editor-in-Chief Suresh Chavhanke, replied, as per PTI.

As per PTI, lawyer Shadan Farasat, representing Jamia students in the Supreme Court, said, “Now Sudarshan TV says it will continue to telecast the programme in the same tenor. Participation of Muslims in civil service and in Parliament is a threat and they are about to take over the country. This is the theme. Each and every episode is a violation of programme code.”

After which Justice Chandrachud, as per Bar and Bench, stated,  "There is indeed some public interest for editor of Sudarshan TV to say that certain foreign funding is happening for ZFI and it may be an extreme issue, but he has right to his opinion. If we issue an injunction then should it be a blanket injunction which covers protected speech or should the court issue an injunction which allows broadcast [without allowing the channel to] stereotype a community or indulge in conspiracy theory or paint one entire community with the same brush?"

Farasat responded, "Normally my preference would be limited injunction in interest of free speech. But here will limited injunction be useful?"

"It is not a trademark suit that we will say don't use a man with a beard or cap. Here, what should the court do as part of the injunctive order? We can't order in specifics as it will denigrate the standard of a constitutional court," Justice Chandrachud then said, as per Bar and Bench.

As per PTI, the apex court bench also expressed its displeasure that the news channel, in an affidavit, pointed to an English news channel that ran two shows on Hindu terror. "Who asked about your opinion about the programmes?” the bench queried.

Jain responded that his affidavit contained a reference to the English channel and their programmes on Hindu terror as he was asked earlier as to why the ''UPSC Jihad'' episodes have “shown Muslim men in skull caps and wearing greens”.

The bench, chastising the lawyer, said: “Does this mean that every time that judges ask questions you will shoot your mouth off? If that is the case, then judges will stop asking questions. You are not supposed to file affidavits on all the questions which judges asks. Judges asks questions to elicit a better response.”

The bench, fixing the next hearing for 23 September, told senior lawyers Mahesh Jethmalani, appearing for an intervenor and Mukul Rohatgi, representing News Broadcasters Federation, that they will be heard at the last.

Earlier, the top court had questioned Sudarshan TV over its programme asking whether media can be allowed to “target whole set of communities” and had asked the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the National Broadcasters Association to give suggestions for strengthening the “self-regulating mechanism” of NBA for electronic media.

'Digital media completely uncontrolled'

Meanwhile, the Centre, in an affidavit relating to the case, told the Supreme Court that the print and electronic media “rarely cross the line” by the very nature of their composition but that digital media is “completely uncontrolled” and “remains unregulated” by and large, as per PTI.

The government said if the apex court considers it necessary to lay down guidelines for mainstream electronic and print media, it is the “need of the hour” that the exercise should start first with web based digital media.

In a fresh affidavit filed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said the top court may leave wider issues to be decided the Central government and the competent legislature or start the exercise with digital media.

It said as against the limitation in case of print media and mainstream electronic media, nothing is required for accessing digital media except a smart phone. “This shows its potential spread and its potential to harm the very fabric of any nation. The electronic media would normally have a geographical barrier and would rarely have a global presence. The digital media, on the other hand, has global presence both in terms of content coming from out of India and the content going out from within the country,” it said.

“As against this, there is absolutely no check on the web based digital media. Apart from spreading venomous hatred, deliberate and intended instigation to not only cause violence but even terrorism it is also capable of indulging in tarnishing the image of individuals and institutions. The said practice is, in fact, rampant,” the affidavit stated.

The Centre had on 17 September filed a short affidavit in the matter and said that if the Supreme Court decides on the issue of media regulation then such an exercise should be undertaken with the digital media first as it has faster reach and information has the potential to go viral due to applications like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook.

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