A message needs to go out to the media that it cannot make a religious minority the target of its attacks, the Supreme Court said on Friday. The dignity of a community is as important as journalistic freedom, it noted.
“We want a cohesive nation. We, as citizens and judges, are concerned about national security but we are also equally concerned about protecting human dignity… We, as a court, know what happened in the Emergency. So, we want a free flow of ideas. But we are also equally conscious about the right to dignity of a community”, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, heading a three-judge Bench, observed.
The court was hearing a plea for pre-telecast ban on a programme partially aired by Sudarshan TV on “UPSC Jihad”.
The show, anchored by the channel’s editor-in-chief, Suresh Chavhanke, claims that members of the Muslim community are attempting to infiltrate the civil services. It raises questions about several organisations like the Zakat Foundation, run by Muslim community members. The show questions their funding and even accuses them of facilitating the “infiltration” of people with terror links into the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC).
Senior advocate Shyam Divan said the programme, “Bindas Bol”, was based on a “fact-based investigation” into these organisations. The court should take a holistic view of the intent of the programme.
Justice Chandrachud said the court did not have a problem with Sudarshan TV exercising its journalistic privilege to investigate an organisation’s funding in public interest but the channel had no business to make sweeping comments about the entire Muslim community. It crossed the Rubicon when it implied that civil services aspirants from the community had terror links.
Not every child can afford to enrol for elite UPSC coaching classes. They may be helped by organisations to enter civil services. These students may also be from other religious communities… “Is it right to imply they have infiltrated UPSC and have terror links”, Justice Chandrachud asked.
Justice Indu Malhotra said such content was “plainly hurtful”. The Sudarshan TV show has smeared an entire community.
Justice Chandrachud said, “Flames come up on the screen, bearded people in skull caps and the colour green are featured when a reference to a Muslim is made in the show. Every time you refer to the UPSC, you show ISIS and jihad. You suggest a deep-rooted conspiracy”.
Justice K.M. Joseph said several communities run institutions to help students crack the civil services exam. “Communities run institutions for their children to attempt civil services. These attacks will marginalise people who want to come into mainstream… You may end up driving them into the wrong hands. Every community strives to have a voice in the bureaucracy. Every community wants to have a slice of power. What is wrong in that?”.
Though calling media regulatory bodies such as the News Broadcasters Association “toothless”, the court asked them and the government to suggest measures to strengthen media self-regulation.
The court said it would not have stepped in and ordered an injunction on the Sudarshan TV show recently had there been a strong self-regulatory mechanism.
Justice Chandrachud said, “A pre-telecast injunction is like a nuclear missile. The court would not have intervened had the government, regulatory bodies had a viable mechanism for self-regulation”.
The court agreed that a pre-telecast ban is an “extreme recourse”.
Justice Chandrachud said, “We are very conscious of the fact that pre-publication, pre-telecast ban by us is a matter of extreme recourse. We do not do it easily. It could take us down a slippery slope… This court is circumspect about clamping down on any news/opinions. Only in certain narrow range of issues is it [pre-telecast ban] done, like child sexual abuse cases, gender violence or cases regarding matrimonial or even any personal relationship”.