To suggest that the Center cannot deny renewal of a license on the basis of security clearance is too far-fetched: SC

It’s too far-fetched to say the government can’t deny renewal of a broadcast licence because of security clearance, the Supreme Court said on Thursday.

On behalf of the Malayalam news channel ‘MediaOne’, its editors, and others, a bench of justices DY Chandrachud and Hima Kohli reserved their verdict. They ruled that a blanket order prohibiting the government from looking into security clearances when renewing a news channel’s broadcast license cannot be issued.

“Security clearances may have several aspects. We can’t pass a generic order in this regard. To renew a license, the government may be required to check security clearances. However, we can look into the peculiar circumstances of this case,” the bench said.

In its hearing, the Supreme Court upheld the Kerala High Court’s ruling upholding the Centre’s decision to ban the news channel’s telecast on security grounds.

The top court also reviewed a confidential document of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

The court asked senior advocate Huzefa Ahmadi, who appeared for the channel’s editor, to provide the court with information regarding the company’s shareholding pattern and revenue share.

During the hearing, Ahmadi stated that denying a security clearance should not be considered an isolated incident and may have many consequences.

The broadcast licenses of several national channels need to be renewed. If this passes muster, then they may also be targeted. How can we defend ourselves if they provide us with the documents and grounds on which they denied us security clearance? What is the best way for us to respond to show cause notices? Ahmadi asked.

Earlier this week, the top court had asked the Centre why it denied security clearance to the Malayalam news channel ‘MediaOne’ and why it cannot disclose those reasons. According to the top court, anything relied upon by one party should be disclosed to the opposing party.

The department had advised ASG K M Nataraj that even in detention under the National Security Act, the authority is required to give the reasons for the arrest; however, in this case, it was stated that the MHA had denied security clearance to the individual.

Earlier this year, the channel stated that no security clearance from the Centre was required to renew the broadcast licence, and the government does not have the omnibus discretion to impose any new conditions.

Earlier this month, the top court issued an interim order staying until further directions the Centre’s directive revoking the news channel’s licence and banning its broadcast on security grounds, which was published on January 31.

Earlier, the company had stated that the news and current affairs channel would continue operating as it did before the ban.

The Supreme Court ruled on the issue following a review of the files filed by the Centre, based on which security clearance was revoked, and the Kerala High Court upheld the ban on the telecast.

Accordingly, it left open the question of whether the content of files based on which the ban order was passed should be provided to the channel to enable it to defend itself.

Earlier this month, the high court upheld the central government’s decision to bar the telecast of the Malayalam news channel and dismissed Madhyamam Broadcasting Ltd’s appeal against the ruling.

MHA had stated that it had denied security clearance based on intelligence inputs received from various agencies.

The channel argued that MHA clearance is required only for new permissions/licences and not for renewals.

In addition, the company had argued that in accordance with the guidelines for uplinking and downlinking, security clearance was required only for fresh permissions, not renewals.

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