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. “You cannot target one community and brand them in a particular manner,” the top court said, restraining Sudarshan TV from airing its show “Bindas Bol” with seven of nine episodes left.
“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,” said a three-judge bench, calling the show “rabid”.
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”.
The judges 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 every day.”
The searing critique of the judges is significant at a time the media is under scrutiny over a no-limit, ethics-challenged coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput investigations by some channels.
“The anchor’s grievance is that a particular group is gaining entry into the civil services,” said Justice DY Chandrachud, 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,” he questioned.
“Reputations can be damaged; image can be tarnished. How to control this? The state cannot do this,” Justice Chandrachud remarked, saying it would be difficult for any government to regulate private channels.
The judge told Sudarshan TV’s lawyer Shyam Diwan: “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. The entire shareholding pattern of the company must be on the site for the 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”. Pointing at the airtime taken up by anchors, he commented that some anchors “mute the speaker” and ask questions.
Representing the centre, 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.
“Your lordships must have seen those programs where ‘Hindu Terror’ was highlighted. The question is to what extent can courts control the publication of content,” Mr Mehta 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.
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.