Self-regulation of TV news requires strengthening, says Supreme Court
The court was responding to the defence put up by Sudarshan News, which claimed that it had through its programme only intended to highlight the alleged dubious sources of foreign funding received by an organisation, Zakat Foundation, which supports and provides coaching for civil service aspirants.Updated: Sep 19, 2020, 02:42 IST
The existing mechanism governing self-regulation of media is ineffective and needs to be strengthened so that media freedom is not used to the detriment of human dignity, the Supreme Court observed on Friday, taking exception to the contents of a television programme, Bindas Bol, aired by Sudarshan News.
A three-judge bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud said that the court will not stand in the way of media discussing dubious funding of NGOs or issues concerning national security, and it is fully conscious of the dangers of restricting media freedom after the excesses of the Emergency in 1975. But free speech rights and media freedom cannot be used to the detriment of human dignity, the court added.
The court was responding to the defence put up by Sudarshan News, which claimed that it had through its programme only intended to highlight the alleged dubious sources of foreign funding received by an organisation, Zakat Foundation, which supports and provides coaching for civil service aspirants.
“We know what happened during Emergency (when media was censored by the ruling dispensation). So we have to ensure there is free flow of information. But we have to also ensure human dignity is protected and human dignity should be balanced with free speech,” Justice Chandrachud remarked.
Experts said that a verdict in the case, which has taken a larger dimension over the course of its hearings and sparked a debate on media freedom, could have larger implications on TV journalism at a time when news content has become a divisive issue.
“It is a loud clarion call to the media to self-regulate and engage in responsible journalism. The court has exercised maximum restraint and has expressed disinclination against prior restraint. If the court passes directions, it could have a significant impact on TV media. In the prevailing conditions, such guidelines will be momentous for Indian media. Self-regulation has been found wanting,” said Supreme Court lawyer, MF Philip.
The Supreme Court on Friday told Sudarshan News that targeting an entire community on the basis of dubious funding of one organisation is not acceptable, and calling for a more robust self-regulation mechanism. It directed the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) to come up with concrete suggestions on strengthening the body and its self-regulation mechanism.
NBA, which is a private association of 26news and current affairs broadcasters, has framed a code of conduct for self-regulation of media. It can hold inquiry against broadcasters for violation of the code and can impose fine of up to Rs 1 lakh.
The court, however, took a grim view of NBA’s functioning, calling it “toothless”.
“NBA says they have a committee headed by a retired Supreme Court judge. They can impose a maximum fine of Rs 1 lakh. This shows how toothless you are,” justice Chandrachud said, underscoring that the fine will not have any impact on a news channel.
He also pointed out that the NBA’s jurisdiction extends only to those broadcasters which are its members.
Advocate Nisha Bhambani, representing NBA, said that it was not a toothless organisation, and several news channels have apologised and published retraction after NBA’s intervention.
“Several Supreme Court and high court judgments have commended our regulations,” she said.
“Do you watch TV? Are you able to control it?,” justice Chandrachud asked.
Bhambani replied that the situation has improved significantly, but admitted that many news channels were not members of NBA which meant it could not exercise jurisdiction over such channels.
Sudarshan News, which is not a member , in its programme Bindas Bol had made allegations regarding the entry of Muslim candidates in civil services. In the programme’s trailer, which was widely shared on social media platforms, the anchor and editor-in-chief of Sudarshan news, Suresh Chavhanke, was seen questioning how there has been a sudden increase in the number of Muslims succeeding in IAS and IPS exams.
Chavhanke went on to ask about what the consequences would be if “Jihadis from Jamia [university]” would hold positions of authority and power like that of Collector and Secretary.
A lawyer, advocate Firoz Iqbal Khan, approached the top court, which, on September 15, barred further telecast of the controversial programme after it expressed its disapproval of the first four episodes of the show.
Senior counsel Shyam Divan, representing Sudarshan News, said that the programme raised serious concerns regarding terrorist organisations funding Zakat Foundation. He pointed to a recent media report about surveillance of Indian leaders by a Chinese company arguing that media has to bring out such stories in national interest.
The bench which also comprised justices Indu Malhotra and KM Joseph, said that national security is of paramount importance but took exception to the manner in which the controversial programme depicted THE Muslim community, particularly by showing stereotyped representative images.
The bench repeatedly referred to the visual which formed part of the programme which showed flames of fire along with a person in a green t-shirt and skull cap, and described some of the images as “hurtful”.
The court asked Sudarshan News to file an affidavit giving details of what changes it proposed to make regarding the programme so as to convince the court to lift the injunction imposed on September 15.
The case will be heard next on September 21.