Centre talks of Media free Speech, Supreme Court of Regulation

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In a case of role reversal, the Apex Court on Tuesday seemed to push the Centre to exercise its powers under the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act against TV channels to have an effective oversight on the contents of TV programmes even as the Centre argued that it respected the media’s right to free speech & was loath to play the regulator.

A bench of CJI SA Bobde & Justice AS Bopanna & Justice V Ramasubramanian expressed displeasure over the Centre’s response to Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind’s petition alleging the Govt did precious little to stop the media from targeting Muslims during the Coronavirus pandemic by making hateful reports on the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Nizamuddin. In its affidavit, the Centre had said that by & large, most mainstream newspapers & web portals reported responsibly on the event. It said during the initial period of the pandemic when some Tablighi Jamaat members were found COVID positive, it received media & public attention. It also detailed the number of accounts & URLs that were blocked to stop the circulation of fake news targeting the minority community

As the hearing progressed, its scope expanded to cover whether the Govt should use the powers it enjoys to regulate content on TV channels.

“We are not satisfied with the Centre’s affidavit. We had asked what steps were taken by the government under the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act against fake news circulated by TV channels. What is the grievance redressal mechanism under the law? On both these points, your affidavit is silent despite us asking for it,” CJI told solicitor general Tushar Mehta.

When Mehta promised to file a fresh affidavit, the bench said, “What the TV channels show is of great consequence to the country. How do you plan to control what channels are showing through law?” Mehta said, “We (the government) don’t want to control the content of TV channels. We respect the right to free speech & expression of media.”

“We want to know what mechanism exists under the law to regulate the content telecast by TV channels. If you have a mechanism, then that should deal with the grievances raised by this petition. If you don’t have a mechanism, then create one. Otherwise, we will hand over the responsibility to the private body,” the bench said.

Supreme Court kept the matter for hearing after 3 weeks. 

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