Sudarshan News Case: Need To Regulate Digital Media, Government Tells Supreme Court
Birds fly over the Supreme Court of India in New Delhi, India. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

Sudarshan News Case: Need To Regulate Digital Media, Government Tells Supreme Court

The Sudarshan News case on Sept. 21 saw a number of parties approaching the Supreme Court seeking to intervene in the hearing. The intervention applications have been filed collectively on behalf of OpIndia, Indic Collective, Upword Foundation and by Zakat Foundation, News Broadcasters Federation, among others.

The case has attracted significant media and public attention as the court has indicated that it’s considering setting up a committee to suggest standards for electronic media. Issues such as balancing the right to freedom of speech versus dignity of a community and hate speech have also come up during the hearings.

The petitioners have maintained that the episode is an example of vilifying a community and the content amounts to hate speech.

Episodes Constitute Hate Speech, Petitioners Argue

The petitioners, challenging the episodes on representation of Muslims in UPSC examinations, argued that the content of the episodes are a clear case of hate speech.

The petitioners, represented by Advocate Shadan Farasat, said statements made in the show are a violation of the Cable Television Network Rules and includes clear innuendoes which vilifies Muslims.

The content of the episodes in question goes against and demeans the constitutional right of access to equality of employment, Farasat said.

“It aims at creating an image of one group of citizens that they’re not worth of public life in the country and strikes at the core of dignity,” he said. “There’s an affirmative responsibility on every body of the state to protect fundamental rights.”

Need To Regulate Digital Media, Government Says

The central government has opposed the apex court’s idea of setting up a panel to suggest standards for electronic media. The government has argued that the self-regulatory mechanisms currently in place are effective, ensure impartiality and may only require a little fine tuning to remove the lacunae.

Self-regulatory bodies at present can only govern those who voluntary choose to be its members. And for television channels which aren’t members of the self-regulating bodies, the matter is taken up directly by the ministry, the government said in its affidavit.

There is, however, a need to regulate the digital media space, as per the government’s stand.

There is absolutely no check on the web-based digital media. Apart from spreading venomous hatred, deliberate and intended instigation to not only cause violence but even terrorism it is also capable of indulging in tarnishing the image of individuals and institutions. The said practice is, in fact, rampant.
Ministry of Information and Broadcasting

News Broadcaster Association Seeks Legal Recognition

The News Broadcasters Association submitted, on Sept. 21, suggestions after the top court discussed on how to strengthen its teeth.

In its affidavit, the association has suggested measures to strengthen the News Broadcasting Standards Authority by:

  • Making NBA Code of Ethics in the cable television rules binding on all news broadcasters.
  • Seeking recognition from the court so complaints against all news broadcasters (irrespective of membership) can be entertained. The NBSA also suggested that its powers to impose penalty could be made more stringent.
  • Making amenability to NBSA mechanism a condition for uplinking/downlinking permissions for news channels.

OpIndia Opposes Injunction Order

The intervention application by OpIndia, Indic Collective and Upword Foundation has opposed the injunction against Sudarshan News’ show and raised six questions for the court’s consideration. These include questions such as whether courts can directly restrain content during the pendency of an examination by the appropriate state authority as well as on hate-speech jurisprudence.

Will Dispel The Misconceptions, Zakat Foundation Argues

Sudarshan News has maintained that it stands by the content of its programme and that the episodes are in line with the programme code rules. The channel argued that the show is an investigative exercise in national interest, claiming that it’s raising questions on some funding received by Zakat Foundation and it’s not against any community.

“There’s no statement or message in the four episodes that members of a particular community should not join UPSC,” Sudarshan News told the top court. “UPSC is an open competitive examination and members of every community may participate in the entrance examination and qualify.”

The Supreme Court has observed that there must be a distinction when it comes to granting remedies in an individual case compared to the issue of entire communities.

If Zakat Foundation feels there is defamation then they can approach civil remedies or a court to enforce damages etc. But here hate speech needs to be seen as targeting specific pockets of a community like LGBTQ etc.
Bar & Bench reported Justice Chandrachud’s observation

Zakat Foundation of India today also sought to be made a party to the proceedings saying that it seeks to dispel the misconceptions being spread about it.

“The Applicant has been funding and providing coaching for not just needy Muslim candidates, but for candidates from all faiths (emphasis supplied), for 11 years. Of the 27 who cleared the selection procedure this year finally, four belonged to other faiths,” it said. “In previous years too, several candidates from different faiths have qualified and benefitted by the Zakat Foundation.”

The case came to the Supreme Court in August when the episodes were yet to be broadcast. While the court initially declined to pass a pre-telecast injunction, it subsequently granted a stay last week after four episodes had been telecast and another few were to be broadcast over the week.

The top court heard the counsels of the petitioners today and will continue hearing the Solicitor General of India as well as the intervenors on Sept. 23.

With inputs from Bar & Bench

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