SC to set up citizens panel for TV channels; asks media to use freedom with caution

The Supreme Court on Tuesday took a dim view of TV programmes vilifying a particular community and warned the media to exercise its freedom with caution.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday took a dim view of TV programmes vilifying a particular community and warned the media to exercise its freedom with caution. TV channels must respect the fact that India is a multi-cultural country, a melting pot of many religions, cultures and values, it said. A programme alleging ‘UPSC jihad’ was prima facie intended to vilify a community by making an insidious attempt to portray it as conspiring to infiltrate the civil services, said a bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and KM Joseph. The court stayed further telecast of the programme on a private TV channel, cleared by the Centre, till Thursday.

“The edifice of a stable democratic society under a regime of constitutional rights and values is founded on the condition of co-existence of communities. India is a melting pot of civilisations, cultures and values etc. Any attempt to vilify a community must be viewed with great disfavour by this court, which is the custodian of constitutional rights,” said Justice Chandrachud. Prima facie, the broadcast falls in the realm of hate speech, he said. The bench said that it would set up a committee of 5 distinguished citizens who will draw up certain standards for the electronic media. “We need members of a commendable nature and not politically divisive ones,” Justice Chandrachud said.

The bench was hearing two pleas, one filed by Feroze Iqbal Khan and another by ex-civil servants including Amitabha Pande and Navrekha Sharma, under the aegis of an informal group known as the constitutional conduct group. Arguing for the petitioners, senior advocate Anoop George Chaudhari drew the court’s attention to the fact that though there were only a few hundred Muslim bureaucrats, the show alleged that ‘money was channelised into India to ensure that the community infiltrated the civil services’. The petitioners sought guidelines to ensure how the media reported such issues.


Words such as traitors were used against the community and images of ISIS were juxtaposed with other images on the show, advocate Shahadan Farasat said. Advocate Gautam Bhatia argued that there must be some parameters to judge hate speech. A community was being vilified to such an extent that it didn’t know how to respond to the challenge. In such a case, the pre-telecast restraint parameters would be different, he said. Representing the Centre, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued that no guideline can be framed as it would affect the freedom of the press. “It would be disastrous for any democracy to control the press,” he said. He also raised the issue of the manner in which ‘Hindu terror was used earlier in the media’.

Justice Joseph raised several problematic issues such as the need to have transparency in ownership of the visual media, the need for the media to enforce a self-declared code of conduct and the need to exercise care and caution as the media exercises its power on behalf of the citizenry. Justice Chandrachud dubbed the claim made in the show as insidious. “Such insidious charges put a question mark on the UPSC exams. Aspersions have been cast against the UPSC. How can such allegations be allowed without any factual basis? Can such programmes be allowed in a free society? Reputations can be damaged; image can be tarnished. Can this be tolerated?”

Both the judges questioned the lack of fair comment in the press. The press must cover all sides and not give a one-sided version, they said. “These kinds of shows are making people shut their TVs. If media fails to realise this, they will be out of business,” Justice Chandrachud said. Justice Joseph said that press freedom was not absolute and was in no way greater than that of the citizens. TV was all about sensationalism, he observed. “So many things masquerade as a form of right,” he said.
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Justice Chandrachud told senior advocate Shyam Divan who appeared for the channel to defend the show that his client needed to exercise freedom with caution and respect the fact that India was a melting point of cultures. “Your client is doing a disservice to the nation.” Divan claimed that the show was an ‘investigative piece which showed the link between funds from abroad and ‘greater recruitment of members of a community into the civil services’.

Justice Chandrachud said that the bench would not tolerate any member of the press claiming that he has the absolute freedom to say that students of Jamia Milia Islamia were part of a group to infiltrate the civil services and imposed the stay on further telecast till it views the programme for itself and adjudicates on the issues involved in it. The bench is expected to adjudicate on the consequences of the media spreading fake news, or indulging in hate speech and its ramifications on the other fundamental rights of citizens such as their right to life and liberty.

The show was earlier challenged in the high court which referred it to the government. The show was aired after the Centre cleared it.
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