Supreme Court to hear pleas challenging ban on BBC documentary next week
The Supreme Court agreed to examine two petitions questioning the government’s decision to restrict the screening of BBC documentary “India: The Modi Question” and its directives to video-sharing and social media platforms to take down the two-part series or tweets and posts containing links to it
NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to examine two petitions questioning the government’s decision to restrict the screening of BBC documentary “India: The Modi Question” and its directives to video-sharing and social media platforms to take down the two-part series or tweets and posts containing links to it. One of the petitions is likely to be heard on Friday.
A bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud agreed to examine the issue brought in two separate petitions filed by advocate Manohar Lal Sharma and another jointly by journalist N Ram, member of Parliament Mohua Moitra and advocate Prashant Bhushan.
The bench, also comprising justices PS Narasimha and JB Pardiwala, directed Sharma’s petition to be listed on February 6, while the court assured that the other petition mentioned by advocate CU Singh will get an urgent listing.
Sharma challenged the restriction placed on sharing the documentary or links to it and requested an urgent hearing as he apprehended arrest. The other petition focused on individual tweets by Moitra and Bhushan that were taken down following an order invoking “emergency laws” by the information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry on January 20 to Twitter.
The tweets had shared the links to the documentary on the 2002 Gujarat riots as part of its focus on atrocities against Muslims. The first episode was aired on January 17, followed by the second episode two days later.
The petition by Ram and others said that the contents of the BBC documentary and the tweets by the petitioners are protected under the right to free speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
Singh told the court that as a result of the order issued by the Centre, the screening of the documentary by students in various campuses is being prohibited. “The action is leading to suspension of students not just from class but from the campus,” he said. While the order of the court is yet to be uploaded, the legal team involved in the petition informed that the matter has been kept for hearing on February 3.
“All citizens including the press have the fundamental right to view, form an informed opinion, critique, report on, and lawfully circulate the contents of the documentary as right to freedom of speech and expression incorporates the right to receive and disseminate information,” the petition said. It further stated that since the order issued by the I&B secretary is not in the public domain, there was no way the petitioners could ascertain the reasons for restricting their tweets.
“Censoring the freedom of speech and expression of the petitioners by the executive through opaque orders and proceedings is manifestly arbitrary as it frustrates the fundamental right of petitioners to effectively seek judicial review of administrative actions under Article 226 and Article 32 of the Constitution of India in violation of the basic structure,” the petition said.
The government issued directions to Twitter India to take down 50 tweets with links to YouTube videos of the BBC documentary under Rule 16 of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021. These included tweets by Moitra and Bhushan.
“As there is no order in the public domain, the reason for restrictions as defined under Section 69A(1) cannot be ascertained,” the petition said. In accordance with Section 69(A), the order restricting freedom of speech and expression has to be in writing and must record reasons for such an order.
They further submitted that the order was “prima facie illegal” as contents of the documentary series do not fall under any of the restrictions specified in Article 19(2), which includes sovereignty and integrity of the country, or restrictions imposed under Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000.
The administration at Jawaharlal Nehru University issued an advisory on January 24, asking students to cancel screening of the BBC documentary on campus as “such an unauthorized activity may disturb peace and harmony of the University campus”.
A day later, Jamia Milia Islamia refused permission to students to screen the documentary. Instructions were issued to prevent any meeting or gathering of students inside the campus without prior permission by authorities.