It has been often said that media is the fourth pillar of democracy, but this statement appears to be besmirched in the recent past, with our country’s media networks and TV channels being mired with complaints of bias, hate speech, false news, vilification and TRP scandals.
The Supreme Court on 25th January 2021 admitted a plea by activist and film-maker Nilesh Navlakha, praying that a ‘Media Tribunal’ be constituted to hear and expeditiously adjudicate complaints against media networks and television channels.
Present Framework for regulating Media:
Currently, media is mostly self regulated by statutory bodies like the Press Council of India and the News Broadcaster’s Association (NBA). The NBA has laid down a Code of Ethics to regulate content through the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) and can also fine the news broadcaster in case of violation of a code. The NBA has an elaborate complaint redressal forum as well. Press Council of India is another quasi judicial authority functioning as a watchdog of the press which adjudicates the complaints against and by the press for violation of ethics and for violation of the freedom of the press respectively.
What is there in the petition?
The petitioners urged The Hon’ble Court to lay down and issue appropriate guidelines outlining the broad regulatory paradigm within which media houses, i.e., broadcasters and electronic media, can exercise their rights under Article 19(1), so as to judicially regulate the same. The petition also prayed for the establishment of an independent, regulatory Tribunal/judicial-body, known as “Media Tribunal,” to hear and expeditiously adjudicate upon complaint petitions against the Media-Businesses filed by the viewers/citizens.
The petition was essentially based on five substantial questions of law which are as follows:
- Whether the news broadcasters enjoy unfettered freedom, of a much higher degree than those enjoyed by the citizens of the Country and whether such freedom can only be subject to self-regulation?
- Whether misinformation/fake news, hate speech, propaganda, paid news, communal, indecent, aggressive, derogatory, sensational, scandalous and disproportionate reporting, incitement, etc. are covered under the right to freedom of press, emanating from Article 19(1)(a)?
- Whether regulation of the news broadcasters would amount to curtailing the freedom of press or media, if the same is done within the parameters specified in Article 19(2)?
- Whether the Article 21 of the Constitution envisages the Right of the Citizens to Free, Fair and Proportionate Media Reporting?
- Whether there is a need for laying guidelines and setting up of a judicial regulatory mechanism in respect of media houses?
The plea emphasised upon the need to create a balance between the right to freedom of speech and expression of the Media-Businesses and the competing right to information of the citizenry under Article 19(1)(a), right to reputation and the right to dignity under Article 21, as well as in the interests of preserving peace and harmony in the nation. It clarified the purpose of the present petition was not to curb the fundamental rights of the Media-Business, but only to bring about some accountability for misinformation, inflammatory coverage, fake news, breach of privacy, etc. which the Media- Business has indulged in, only with the aim to further their business, and to bring about consequences for acting in a fashion that is contrary to constitutional goals and morality.
The plea further submitted that Electronic Media has become the most powerful medium with unprecedented influence over the minds of the people, which has the power and impetus to set the country ablaze with their hateful and fissiparous discourse, and it can, by no stretch of imagination be read into the right to freedom of speech and expression enjoyed by the Electronic Media which is subject to restrictions that are provided under the Article 19(2) of the Constitution, just like any other citizen of the country.
Furthermore, it was submitted that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Union of India, being the nodal ministry has totally failed in the discharge of its duties, in implementing the undertaking of the Electronic Media broadcasters, of compliance with the Programme Code in Rule 6 of the Cable Television Rules, 1994 and instead of doing service to the nation and working in the public interest, of late, the media is afflicted with disseminating hate speech, propaganda news, paid news, thereby impeding the right to a fair trial of victims and right to fair and proportionate reporting. It also pointed out how media is bound by Article 51 to uphold the duties fundamental to all citizens which becomes judicially enforceable through expanding interpretation of the Article 21.
The plea elaborated on how the present set of self regulations and the lack of accountability on the Electronic Media channels is insufficient and essentially makes the Electronic Media Broadcaster a judge in his own case, thereby completely negating the rule of law enshrined in our Constitution.
While drawing attention to the very purpose of media, the petition emphasised on how far it has come from being a form of “service” to the cause of the people’s freedom, a great juggernaut of social change, reform and awakening, while acting as one of the greatest tools to mobilize the people and consolidate social consciousness for the freedom struggle in the pre- Independence era, to using its power to further business interests in the present times and mutating from being a service to being a business.
It was urged before the court “to frame guidelines to regulate the news broadcasters and electronic media, in the absence of an effective legislative mechanism for checks and balances on the exercise of the right of freedom of speech and expression by the news broadcasters; And further, to constitute an Independent Committee, headed by sitting or retired Judges, to inter alia, recommend to the Central Government for establishment of an independent, regulatory Tribunal/body “Media Tribunal” to hear and expeditiously adjudicate upon complaint petitions against the Media Business, Corporates and Journalists, filed by the viewers/citizens, to regulate the broadcasting and media sector…”
It is important to understand that a free and fair media lays the foundation of a sound democracy and the state of a country’s media in fact represents how democratic a state is. In the recent years, India’s position in World Press Freedom Index has just been falling with India ranking a miserable 142 out of 180 in the index of 2020. Furthermore, a lack of trust in news provided by media houses leads to consumption of news from unverified sources on social media which in turn is even more dangerous and impacts the society by widening digital divide and disillusionment of youth which in fact is a real risk that the world faces today. It must be noted that the Supreme Court in Firoz Iqbal Khan v. Union of India & ORS [Writ Petition (Civil) No. 956/2020] has already expressed willingness to consider issues relating to the framing of guidelines for the regulation of the Media-Business, while observing “The problem with electronic media is all about TRPs, thus leading to more and more sensationalism. So many things masquerade as a form of right..”
It is indeed time we make some corrections to the erring ways in which media has been functioning of late but it is equally important to do so without trampling over the freedom of speech and expression and while maintaining a fine balance.
Image source: here