News Channels Causing Rift in Society, Says SC While Hearing Hate Speech Cases
On January 13, 2023, the Supreme Court observed that television channels in India are dividing society because they are motivated by agendas, competing to sensationalize news, and follow the instructions of their funders. This observation came after the Supreme Court bench of Justices KM Joseph and BV Nagarathna heard a number of petitions regarding incidents of hate speech and actions to be taken over them.
The above-mentioned petitions filed were filed in the Supreme court highlighting the various instances wherein hate speeches were made against the Muslim community, namely the "UPSC Jihad" campaign by Sudarshan News TV, the "Corona jihad" campaign in response to the Tablighi Jamaat issue and the Dharam Sansad meetings where allegedly anti-Muslim statements were made in Uttarakhand. These petitions had further urged the Supreme Court to formulate such broad guidelines to curb hate speech.
As the matter was taken up by the bench, Justice KM Joseph inquired about the "general climate" since his previous order, wherein he had mandated that the police take action against hate speech on their own initiative, regardless of the speaker's religion. As provided by LiveLaw, Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde had responded to this by saying that they can't make a generalization because all it takes is one spark to set everything on fire.
Court questioned the NBDSA
The News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority and the Central government were questioned by the bench over regulating the airing of hate speech programs.
Justice Joseph then remarked, as provided by Livelaw, that "Channels are basically competing with each other. They sensationalize it. How do you control this? Freedom of speech and expression is important. Problem with freedom is it is about the audience. Can the audience dish out or understand the agenda. Agenda is serving someone else. Then there is money behind the channel. The point also is who puts money, they will dictate."
Such channels, the bench continued, are causing rifts in society. The bench further said then one must behave like they have earned the right to free speech and expression when they assert it. Otherwise, Justice Joseph said, "What dignity is left for us?""We require free and balanced press. Free, but balanced too", Justice Nagarathna had added, as provided by Livelaw.
Speaking on behalf of the NBSDA, Senior Advocate Arvind Datar stated that numerous infractions had been addressed by the NBDSA. However, the Court had a different opinion of how the NBDSA was operating, saying, "Unfortunately, you are doing nothing," as provided by the Bar&Bench.
In their defense, the NBDSA said that some networks, such as Sudarshan TV and Republic TV, are outside of its purview.
"The only issue is that Sudarshan TV and Republic TV are not under our control because they are not a part of our network. Our code ought to be incorporated into the program code so that it would be applicable everywhere, "explained the NBDSA counsel.
The bench also inquired as to what can be done about news anchors who themselves promote such hatred. "If the anchor of a TV program is themselves part of the problem then what. NBSA should not be biased. One sided program cannot happen," the bench underscored, as reported by the Bar&Bench
The anchor of a live program determines how fair the program is, the bench continued. "Therefore, if there is a fine on anchors, people will understand that there is a cost associated with it. Anchors can also be removed,” explained the Court.
The Court emphasized that media professionals needed to know how to act. "Most of these instances include questions of community and religion. People who work in the media need to learn proper behaviour and understand that the public does not always have access to their positions of tremendous power,” the Court commented, as provided by the Bar&Bench.
Counsel for the Accused
Speaking on behalf of Suresh Chavhanke, advocate Vishnu Shankar Jain referenced remarks made by Zakir Naik and Akbaruddin Owaisi and bemoaned the lack of action.
Justice Joseph emphasized that the most recent court ruling explicitly indicated that whatever the speaker's religion, action should be taken. The speeches referenced in Chavhanke's motion date back to 2013, and Justice Joseph also remarked that it would be preferable if more recent incidents were provided. Jain thus, withdrew the application but was given liberty to resubmit it citing more current cases.
Stand of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh
Uttarakhand's Deputy Advocate General, Jatinder Kumar Sethi, informed the bench said that the State has been following the Court's order and has registered 23 suo moto cases since the passing of the last order. Although he acknowledged that suo motu FIRs present certain practical challenges, he also raised some concerns and called for additional safeguards since in suo momt cases line between investigation and complaint becomes blurred.
As provided by Livelaw, Justice Joseph then told the Uttarakhand Dy.AG that mere registration of FIRs is not sufficient. To this, Advocate Sethi replied that in suo motu FIRs, there will be chargesheets for sure, as police would not want to say that their colleague who registered the FIR is incorrect.
"Chargesheet has to be filed with reasonable dispatch and should encompass full-fledged investigation. It shouldn't be for namesake", Justice Joseph stated while adding, "This (hate speech) is a complete menace and nothing short of it", as has been reported by LiveLaw.
Uttar Pradesh Additional Advocate General Garima Prashad informed the bench that over 581 cases were registered and about 160 were suo motu cases. Justice Joseph noted that there is a "quantum leap" in the number of cases
Stand of Centre
The Additional Solicitor General of India, KM Nataraj, informed the bench that the practice of self-regulation is being used by the media in the current legal environment. The ASG added that the Center won't intervene unless a significant event occurs that threatens the national interest or security of the nation. The ASG stated that the Union of India takes the position that a separate amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code should address the crime of hate speech. The ASG further stated that the opinions of the key stakeholders had been solicited regarding changes to criminal laws, and that the Parliament will ultimately make those decisions based on the legislative process.
Further direction of the bench
The bench has now issued a notice on an application to add all states as respondents in the case. The court further ordered the State of Uttarakhand to submit a status report on the instances involving hate speech in connection with the Haridwar Dharam Sansad event. The bench also noted in the ruling that the Union of India is considering legislative measures as one of the potential solutions to address the issues raised in the petitions.
Brief background on the case:
The top court ordered the Union Home Ministry to create a thorough chart demonstrating States' adherence to the broad directives it given in the judgements of Shakti Vahini and Tehseen Poonawalla, aimed at reducing hate speech, in July of last year.
The country's major television news networks operate in a way that the highest court found to be particularly concerning in September, 2022 adding that they frequently allow for hate speech and subsequently avoid punishment. Politicians also stand to gain the most from the exposure of their hate rhetoric.
The Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand Police were instructed by the court to act independently in cases of hate speech without taking the religion of the perpetrators into consideration in October.
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