'Want a free but balanced press in India': SC questions hate speech

The Supreme Court on Friday said the television channels are creating divisions in society, as they are agenda-driven and compete to sensationalise news

Supreme Court
Supreme Court

NH Digital

The Supreme Court on Friday said the television channels are creating divisions in society, as they are agenda-driven and compete to sensationalise news, and anchors who try to create divisions in the society through their programmes should be taken off air.

It emphasised that a free and balanced press is wanted in India, adding that unlike print media, there is no Press Council of India for news channels, and observed "We want free speech, but at what cost".

A bench of Justices K.M. Joseph and B.V. Nagarathna orally observed that channels are competing against each other, they sensationalise things, and serve an agenda.

Justice Joseph orally told a counsel, representing The News Broadcasters & Digital Association: "You (the news channels) create divisions amongst the society, or whatever opinion you want to create is much faster...".

As counsel said they are guidelines for anchors, Justice Joseph asked: "How many times have you taken off anchors, have you dealt with anchors in a way you send a message, see ultimately who controls the content of the programme anchor and editorial... if anchor himself or herself are part of the problem."

He added that the visual medium can influence much more than a newspaper and asked if the audience, are "mature enough to see this content?"

He added many a time during live debates the anchors became part of the problem as they either mute the voice of the person sitting in a panel or don't allow them to present a counter view.

On her part, Justice Nagarathna, who recently gave a dissenting verdict on speeches made by public functionaries where she dealt with the issue of hate speech said: "We want a free and balanced press in India... free but balanced."

Additional Solicitor General K.M. Nataraj, representing the Centre, contended that the government is contemplating a separate amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code and that is its stand in the matter.

Justice Joseph said: "Freedom of speech, the greater the freedom the better marketplace of ideas is very good. In the marketplace of ideas we have to also see populace... are we really a fully developed country?... are the audience mature enough to receive this kind of information that is dished out. If freedom is exercised with an agenda, then you are not actually serving the people."

The apex court made these sharp observations while hearing a clutch of petitions seeking action in hate speech incidents.

Justice Joseph also criticised the manner in which TV channels used words against the man accused of peeing in an Air India flight. He said that nobody should be denigrated and everyone has the right to dignity and media people must learn that they're occupying positions of great strength and what they're saying impacts the whole country. He suggested that offending anchors should be "taken off air".

In October last year, the apex court had ordered the Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand Police to take suo motu action in cases of hate speech without looking at the religion of the offenders.

On Friday, Nataraj submitted that a comprehensive amendment to CrPC is in the pipeline and the government is taking inputs from stakeholders and this has to go to the parliament and he cannot contemplate action of the legislature.

The top court asked the state governments to make their position clear on the broader issues projected in the case and also asked the amicus to submit draft guidelines in the case on the next date of the hearing.

The Uttarakhand counsel told the court that the state had registered 23 suo motu cases after the last order but it is facing difficulties in pursuing the cases in those circumstances where a police officer is both the complainant and investigator. Uttar Pradesh counsel said the same issue exists with the state's police and informed the bench that state had registered 581 cases and about 160 of them were suo motu.

Holding that the Constitution of India envisages a secular nation, the court had directed the state governments to promptly register criminal cases against the offenders without waiting for a complaint to be filed.

The top  court warned any delay on the part of the administration in taking action on this "very serious issue" will invite the court's contempt.

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