NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Friday said while it was duty bound to step in to protect the right to dignity of a community and stop a telecast which attempted to malign the Muslim community as a whole by insinuating that they were infiltrating the civil services, it could not act as a PIL-activated censor board for TV programmes.
“We are conscious of the fact that pre-publication restraint is an extreme recourse for the Supreme Court. This could take us on a slippery slope for there are 900 high court judges and over 20,000 judicial officers, who could emulate the SC and start granting injunction on programmes telecast by TV channels across the country, even for panchayat stage elections. We are wary of opening a clampdown front,” a bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and K M Joseph said.
“We are wary of playing the role of a censor and the country has moved far from the Emergency era. We do not want to come in the way of a mosaic of journalistic ideas going to market. But we also have a constitutional duty to protect human dignity which is as important as the right to free speech. We are here to protect the cohesiveness of cultures and prevent stereotyping of communities,” the bench added. It said the way forward was to give teeth to self-regulatory mechanisms.
The remark came during a hearing where the court sought to balance its constitutional mandate as the protector of free speech with the obligation to uphold the dignity of individuals and communities while being wary of arrogating unto itself the role of a super censor. As it included “dignity” of individuals and communities among the “reasonable ” grounds for curbing freedom of expression, the court also appeared concerned about the effectiveness of the self-regulatory mechanism for electronic media and asked solicitor general Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Union government, and advocate Nisha Bhambani of National Broadcasters Association to suggest by Monday how to strengthen the industry’s voluntary restraints.
“NBA cannot take action against TV channels which are not its members, as is the case with Sudarshan TV. The maximum penalty of Rs 1 lakh on an offending TV channel is a pittance in the present day and time. We must find a way forward to have an effective self-regulatory mechanism,” it said.
Mehta informed the court that the government had framed a new legislation providing for five types of penalties, including suspension of a TV channel’s broadcasting licence for violating the programme code, and has invited suggestions from stakeholders as well as the public before finalising the bill for introduction in Parliament.
The bench gave reasons for taking the extreme step of stopping telecast of Sudarshan TV’s ‘Bindas Bol’ programme on alleged infiltration of the central services by members of the Muslim community. The judges said the channel sought to implicate the entire community and pointed to offensive graphics, background videos and scornful live chats linked to the programme which appeared to vilify the Muslim community. It said it would consider lifting the ban if Sudarshan TV voluntarily filed an affidavit by Monday detailing changes it would carry out to make the programme an investigative report. The channel agreed.
Appearing for the channel, senior advocate Shyam Divan said the constitutional courts, which always protected the right to free speech to the fullest, would chart a dangerous course by resorting to pre-telecast ban. “There is enough regulatory mechanism available, in law and otherwise, for those aggrieved to seek redress against an offending programme. No one has challenged the facts and statistics presented in the programme,” he said.
“Pulling out one sentence from here and there and then terming the whole programme to be maligning a community would be the antithesis of free speech. If there was a view that Muslims should endeavour to capture the civil services, then there could be a counter view too. The programme was based on facts about terror related foreign organisations funding Zakat Foundation which footed the fees for coaching of Muslim students for civil services. The channel has clarified that it has no objection to meritorious students from any community getting into civil services. We are also not saying all the funds are terror linked. But surely the facts have not been challenged and it is a national security issue,” Divan said.
The bench pointed out the offending graphics and background videos of the programme as well as hate comments through the live chat sessions linked to the broadcast. “You have every right to investigate the funding of Zakat Foundation and present it to the public. But the problem arises when you implicate the whole community. Can we allow you to go to this extent to target a whole community and accuse them of infiltrating the civil services? What happens when you brand an entire community with divisive propaganda is that you alienate the good people in the community,” it said.
Arguments will continue on Monday after the channel files an affidavit detailing the corrections it will carry out in its episodes to be telecast in future.