Stopping further telecast of a TV programme allegedly insinuating that Muslims were attempting to infiltrate the civil services, the Supreme Court said as the highest court of the land, it could not allow such “insidious” comments in the name of freedom of the press to vilify a particular community to disturb harmony in a country that has been a “melting pot of cultures”.
“The edifice of a democratic society committed to the rule of law under a regime of constitutional rights, values and duties is founded on the co-existence of communities. India is a melting pot of civilisations, cultures, religions and languages. Any attempt to vilify a religious community must be viewed with grave disfavour by this court as the custodian of constitutional values. Its duty to enforce constitutional values demands nothing less,” a bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and K M Joseph said.
On a PIL seeking to stop telecast of a serialised programme ‘Bindas Bol’ on Sudarshan TV, which has already telecast four out of 10 parts of the “investigative documentary”, the bench made no secret of its deep distress over the content of the programme and said, “When you say students of Jamia are part of the conspiracy to infiltrate civil services, that is not permissible. You cannot target one community and brand them in a particular way, that too on factually wrong facts. As the Supreme Court of India, we cannot allow you to say that Muslims are infiltrating the civil services. It is a slur on the UPSC also. While doing so, you cannot say that journalistic freedom is absolute.”
The bench also asked about the necessity for self-regulation of content on electronic media. It stopped further telecast till September 17, when it will resume hearing on the PIL. It asked the parties to file their responses to the petition as well as issues raised by the court on putting in place a self-regulating regime for electronic media.
"The problem with electronic media is about their race for TRPs. In doing so, they do not bother about damage caused to the reputation of others," the bench said.
The bench’s comment came in the backdrop of TV channels, over the last few months, going berserk in their coverage of cases relating to the suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, alleged involvement of Rhea Chakraborty, Kangana Ranaut's outbursts and demolition of alleged illegal construction in her Mumbai office.
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta recounted a TV channel running a 'Hindu Terror" programme continuously for some days and availability of numerous videos on websites and YouTube vilifying one community or the other. He said it would be difficult to rein in the media in this age and time. There was a web video programme which indulged in scaremongering by airing programmes about alleged food scarcity and food riots immediately after the first pandemic lockdown, leading to massive migration of workers, he said. "That was no less serious than hate speech," he added.
"Regulating media is both disastrous and damaging to democracy," Mehta said and informed the court that the government had issued a notice to Sudarshan TV to ensure that the contents of the impugned programme conformed to the programme code under the Cable and Television Networks (Regulation) Rules. The SC asked him to file what steps were taken by the government after the first four of the 10-part programme was aired on the channel.
Appearing for the channel, senior advocate Shyam Divan said the programme was not about vilifying a community but an investigative journalistic activity. The programme was about huge foreign funding from sources inimical to India, he said and requested the court not to form an opinion by watching snippets from here and there. He said it would be an affront to the sanctity of journalistic freedom if the court stopped telecast of the programme without watching all its 10 parts.
The bench said, "At this stage, prima facie, it does appear to the court that the intent, object and purpose of the episodes which have been telecast is to vilify the Muslim community. An insidious attempt has been made to insinuate that the community is involved in a conspiracy to infiltrate the civil services."
"Several statements in the episodes, which have been drawn to the attention of the court, are not just palpably erroneous but have been made in wanton disregard of the truth. There is no relaxation either in the age limit or in the number of attempts available to the Muslim community in the civil services. The drift, tenor and content of the episodes is to bring the community into public hatred and disrepute."
The bench, which had refused to stop telecast of 'Bindas Bol' on August 28, said it was changing its mind as now it had prima facie knowledge about the nature of the programme. "The remaining episodes admittedly will be in the same vein. On the basis of what has been aired, we are of the view that it will be necessary to interdict any further telecast," it ordered and restrained the channel from airing the same content in any other name.
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