Friday, the Supreme Court favoured action against television anchors who behave inappropriately during discussions and asked how often an anchor had been removed from the air over a show.
“How often have you released anchors? Justice K M Joseph, presiding over a two-judge bench, asked Advocate Nisha Bhambani, representing the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) in a batch of cases involving claims of hate speech, “Have you dealt with anchors in the way you transmit a message?”
Justice Joseph asked the question in response to Bhambani’s statement that the Authority takes prompt and effective action whenever it gets a complaint about a programme broadcast by one of its members.
Additional Solicitor General K M Nataraj, appearing on behalf of the government, said the bench, which also included Justice B V Nagarathna, that there are appropriate checks and balances in place.
In response, Justice Joseph stated, “Checks and balances are not being advised in a manner that achieves results.”
He stated that anchors sometimes prevent individuals from voicing their opinions. “In many of these television programmes, you do not give everyone an equal opportunity to speak. Participants, you don’t want to voice their opinions, you will either mute them or allow the other person to speak the entire time uncontested,” he said, adding, “therefore the point is that it is neither the broadcaster’s right nor the panellists’ opinions. It is the right of those who are observing it.”
Justice Joseph said, “one approach (to exercise the check and balance) is if you have an erring anchor, the key is handled by the anchor; in a live broadcast, the fairness of the programme ultimately rests with the anchor, and if the anchor is not acting fairly…
If you take serious action against anchors, they will instantly realise that it will not pay off. On the other hand, I will have to pay a steep price, since I will be removed from the air… There is also the ability to remove anchors.
Justice Joseph stated that he would relate the behaviour of channels to what Adi Sankaracharya had stated: “udaranimitham, bahukritha vesham” (many things are done for the stomach).
“Everything can be traced back to your udaram” (stomach). TRP drives the current situation. This is the primary difficulty. Channels are essentially in competition with one another. Unfortunately, you are not taking any action in response. They sensationalise particular matters. You should realise that, in contrast to those who read a newspaper, the visual portion of the brain is immediately appealing to those who watch television, especially children, who become attracted to it. And you create divisions within society or whatever view you desire far faster than any other medium,” he told the NBSA’s legal counsel.
Justice Joseph stated that the anchor and editors control the content “ultimately” and questioned, “Is the anchor a part of the problem?”
Justice Joseph, discussing how to govern television while balancing the right to free expression, stated: “On the one hand, it’s freedom of speech…
The argument that the bigger the freedom, the better the marketplace of ideas is excellent. However, in the marketplace of ideas, we must also consider the… The difficulty with freedom is that it is audience-dependent. Are they old enough to comprehend the information or disinformation being distributed? If freedom is exercised with an agenda, or if you promote a specific goal, you are not serving the people. You are serving another individual’s cause. Then you must be addressed.”
Referring to the incident in which a man was accused of urinating on a fellow passenger on a flight, Justice Joseph stated, “The kind of language that had been used against him, he is a defendant. Allow them to use TRP as they see fit. However, please refrain from demeaning others with your speech. Human respect is involved… It is included in Article 21”.
“When using your constitutional rights to freedom of speech, press, etc., you should act as though you are entitled to them. The right should be exercised appropriately. Otherwise, what honour remains for the nation…?
Justice Joseph noted that the First Amendment protects press freedom in the United States and “they permit free expression until two events occur.” One is the doctrine of fighting words and incitement to violence. Also, in England, they are attempting to prevent the restriction of free speech. So that they won’t meddle. Also, in Europe, the concept of regulating free speech is not very well received.
He said that the difficulties in India are quite different, and a constitutional provision – Article 19 – addresses this (2). However, we are merely stating that free expression must also be preserved.
“Therefore, these petitions are not really about 19(2) per se, but rather the exercise of 19(1)(a) rights and how, in exercising those rights, there is a breach of Article 21 or another person’s Article 19(1)(a) rights,” said Justice Nagarathna.
Justice Joseph stated that members of the media must recognise their positions of power. “…and any misuse by them, by anyone who watches the channel, affects the entire nation. As a result, those who view them will be unable to determine the truth instantly. They will accept anything is presented as the truth, incorporate it into their systems, and shape their lives accordingly, which is quite dangerous.”
At the latest hearing, the Supreme Court instructed the DGPs of Delhi, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh to file criminal charges against people engaging in “hate speech” without waiting for formal complaints.
Friday, the counsel for Uttarakhand informed the court that, in compliance with the direction, the state had filed 118 cases, of which 23 are suo moto, and the remainder are based on complaints.
The state attorney stated that there were certain practical obstacles. When a police officer records a complaint on his or her own initiative, the officer becomes the complainant and the inquiry becomes subjective rather than objective. When the police officer is the complainant, it is impossible for the police to dispute the charges, he continued.
In response to a question from the bench, he stated that investigations are ongoing.
Uttar Pradesh notified the court that it had filed 581 cases in 2021 and 2022, of which 160 were initiated on its own initiative. The court observed that the 2022 amount was over 2.5 times that of 2021.
In response to what the government plans to do to ban hate speech on television, etc., Nataraj stated that revisions to the criminal legislation are in the works.
“We have solicited advice from a variety of parties and states. These have been our inputs… It must ultimately be submitted to the Parliament. It is a legislative endeavour… After gathering all inputs, we must propose relevant legislation… He stated, “I cannot advocate for the legislation.”