New Delhi, Sep 15, 2020: A private TV channel’s episodes on "Muslims infiltrating" government services cannot air for now, a furious Supreme Court ordered today, calling the show an attempt to vilify Muslims. "It appears that the object of the programme is to vilify the Muslim community and make it responsible for an insidious attempt to infiltrate the civil services... You cannot target one community and brand them in a particular manner, " the top court said, restraining Sudarshan TV from airing what it called a "rabid" show.
The power of the electronic media to target a community, damage reputations or tarnish someone’s image is "huge", the Supreme Court noted. One of the judges commented that the "problem with the electronic media is all about TRPs", leading to more and more sensationalism that damages the reputation of people and "masquerades as a form of right".
A three-judge bench called for a panel of five distinguished citizens to come up with standards for electronic media. When the Press Council of India said regulations are in place, Justice DY Chandrachud shot back: "Really? If things would have been so hunky dory then we would not have to see what we see on TV everyday."
The sharp comments by the judges are significant at a time some in the media have come under criticism over their no-limits, ethics-challenged coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput investigations.
"The power of the electronic media is huge. It (Electronic media) can become a focal point by targeting particular community or groups," said Justice DY Chandrachud.
"The anchor grievance is that a particular group is gaining entry into the civil services," he said, referring to the Sudarshan TV show. "How insidious is this? Such insidious charges put a question mark on UPSC exams, cast aspersion on UPSC. Such allegations without factual basis, how can this be allowed? Can such programmes be allowed in a free society," said the judge.
"Reputations can be damaged; image can be tarnished. How to control this? State cannot do this," Justice Chandrachud remarked, saying it would be difficult for any government to regulate private channels.
The judge, addressing Sudarshan TV Lawyer Shyam Diwan, said: "Your client is doing a disservice to the nation and is not accepting India is a melting point of diverse culture. Your client needs to exercise his freedom with caution."
Justice KM Joseph suggested: "We need to look at the ownership of the visual media. Entire shareholding pattern of the company must be on site for public. The revenue model of that company should also be put up to check if the government is putting more advertisements in one and less in another."
Justice Joseph said the media "can’t fall foul of standards they prescribe". He commented that some anchors "mute the speaker" and ask questions.
"Next in debates one needs to see the role of anchor. How one listens when others speak but check in the TV debates the percentage of time taken by anchor to speak.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued that the freedom of a journalist is supreme. "It would be disastrous for any democracy to control the press," he said.
The government lawyer pointed out that there was a "parallel media", other than the electronic media, where a laptop and a journalist can lead to lakhs of people viewing their content.
"We are not on social media today. We cannot choose not to regulate one thing because we cannot regulate all," replied Justice Chandrachud.
"I am talking about electronic media and print media. Justice Joseph’s concerns must be addressed by giving respect to journalistic freedom. There are a large number of web portals whose ownership is different than what they show," said Mr Mehta.
Justice Joseph said journalistic freedom "is not absolute". A journalist, he said, shares the same freedom as other citizens.
"There is no separate freedom for journalists like in the US. We need journalists who are fair in their debates," the judge said.
Justice Chandrachud added: "When journalists operate, they need to work around right to fair comment. See in criminal investigations, the media often focuses only one part of the investigation."
He said the "best within the nation" should suggest measures to debate and then arrive at standards. "Now an anchor is targeting one community. To say we are a democracy we need to have certain standards in place," Justice Chandrachud said.
The top court had earlier declined to stay the telecast but agreed to examine the larger issue of balancing of free speech, with other constitutional values, including the fundamental right to equality and fair treatment for every segment of citizens.