Can’t disclose reasons for seeking ban on MediaOne: Centre
The reasons for recommending a ban on Malayalam news channel MediaOne cannot be disclosed as such disclosure will have “unimaginable” and ‘far-reaching” consequences on national security, the Centre informed the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Responding to a petition filed by the channel owner Madhyamam Broadcasting Limited (MBL), the Centre, in its affidavit, said that the renewal permission is dependent on security clearance by the ministry of home affairs (MHA).
The MBL, in a petition, challenged the January 31 order of the ministry of information and broadcasting (MoIB), declining the renewal of uplink and downlink permission to the channel.
The MHA denied security clearance to MediaOne on December 29, 2021, based on intelligence inputs, following which their renewal request was rejected.
“The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has informed that the denial of security clearance is based on intelligence inputs, which are sensitive and secret. Therefore, as a matter of policy and in the interest of the security of the state and its establishments, the MHA does not disclose the reasons for denial,” stated the affidavit filed by Director, MoIB, Vrunda M Desai.
Stating that in matters involving national security, the petitioner cannot insist on knowing the reasons for denial of security clearance, the Centre said, “The MHA under Section 124 of Evidence Act seeks privilege over its secret files and prays to the Court that the contents of the file may not be disclosed to the petitioners, as such a disclosure may have far-reaching and unimaginable consequences in so far as national security is concerned.”
On March 15, the Supreme Court stayed the order denying security clearance to the channel, thus restoring its functioning before January 31.
The bench of justices Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, Surya Kant and Vikram Nath said, “Having due regard to the contents of the files produced by the respondent (Centre), the order of the Union government revoking security clearance granted to the petitioner (MBL) shall remain stayed pending further orders.”
The Court passed the order after going through the MHA files produced before the Court in a sealed cover. The Court allowed the Centre to file its response and said that the question of whether the confidential MHA file ought to be shared with the petitioner would be decided later. Interestingly, the MBL lost two rounds of litigation – first before the single judge of the Kerala high court on February 8 and later in appeal before the division bench of the same high court on March 2, which relied on the MHA files and declined to interfere with the ban.
The channel claimed that it was being kept in the dark about the reasons for banning it from going on air, and it had a right to know the grounds of threat to national security alleged against it.
The Centre responded to this argument in its affidavit by saying, “In cases like the present, wherein the matter concerning national security is involved, the petitioner company cannot insist upon the strict compliance of principles of natural justice and the respondent is not bound to disclose the reasons of denial of security clearance to the petitioner company.” However, the Centre had no objection to placing the files in a sealed cover yet again for the Court’s consideration.
The Centre further denied MBL’s claim that security clearance once granted to the channel, cannot be insisted upon during renewal. Calling such an argument an “afterthought”, the affidavit said, “The contention on behalf of the petitioner company that the security clearance of MHA is required only at the time of initial permission and in case of renewal no such permission is required is fallacious and contrary to the provisions of the uplinking and downlinking guidelines.”
The channel claimed that it had nearly 350 employees, and monthly salary bills were mounting.
Even the Court was averse to keeping things in a sealed cover as it said, “The perusal of files by the Court to the exclusion of the petitioner is not an expression of this Court on the tenability of contention of the petitioner that they will be entitled to inspect the files which will be open to them at the time of final disposal.”
The Media One channel, a news and current affairs channel, got security clearance from the MHA in February 2011, following which it obtained a license to operate in September 2011. This permission had to be renewed after ten years. On January 5 this year, the channel was served with a show-cause notice for revoking the permission, over “national security and public order”. In February 2020, the MHA briefly suspended the channel’s licence following its coverage of the Delhi riots.