Solicitor General to SC: It would be disastrous for any democracy to control the Press

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta on Tuesday told the Supreme Court that the freedom of the journalist is supreme and it would be disastrous for any democracy to control the press.
Tushar Mehta

New Delhi: Mehta made this argument during the hearing of a plea — by a bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and KM Joseph — against Sudarshan TV for its show ‘UPSC Jihad’, which focuses on how Muslims have “infiltrated” the Civil Service. During the hearing Justice Chandrachud queried Mehta, can this (citing TV show) be tolerated in a free society and perhaps whether self-regulation can be put forth?

Mehta replied that it would be disastrous for any democracy to control the Press. Justice Chandrachud queried, is this truly an exercise of Article 19 (1) (a). Mehta replied perhaps the court may not have had the chance to look at the rabid things being put out through various mediums. “But the question is, can it be regulated,” queried Mehta, citing if something nasty has been written about him, could anything be done about it. “It is Press freedom after all”, emphasised Mehta.

Justice Joseph said no freedom is absolute, not even journalistic freedom. Mehta replied the ownership of a media platform often reflects the views expressed on the portals. In the post-lunch hearing, Mehta argued that there are various platforms, including blogs, which churn out all kinds of opinions. Justice Chandrachud said electronic media houses should be differentiated from individual blogs. Mehta argued that some channels were raising the bogey of “Hindu Terror”, some time ago. “The question is to what extent can the content be controlled?” queried Mehta. Justice Chandrachud said the Act says communal reporting cannot be done.

At the end of the hearing, Mehta reiterated that there are statutory authorities to deal with violations. After the September 9 order of the Centre, the broadcast took place between September 11-14. The Bench asked,”Did anybody in the ministry apply their mind on the broadcast which happened?” Mehta replied, he would have to take instructions on it.

The top court noted that the SG submitted that wider issues would have to be addressed from, not just the electronic media point of view but from other media too, from which objectionable content is shared.

The apex court stayed the broadcast of the remaining five shows of the programme, and added that it is inclined to have a committee of five distinguished citizens to suggest certain standards for electronic media. The bench said: “We don’t want this to be politically divisive.”

Earlier, the apex court had declined to impose a pre-broadcast ban on the show, and issued notice to the Centre. The petitioners had moved the top court arguing that the programme content would stoke communal tensions.

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