The buck stops with the government to stop hate speech, hate crimes: Supreme Court

The court highlighted the problem of hate speech on TV, saying that anchors have become tools to peddle “agendas”, with content also dictated by the “money” behind TV channels

January 13, 2023 07:58 pm | Updated January 14, 2023 09:37 am IST - NEW DELHI

A protest against hate speech in Dehradun. File

A protest against hate speech in Dehradun. File | Photo Credit: PTI

The Supreme Court on Friday said the “buck ultimately stops with the government” to clamp down on hate speech and hate crimes, as they are offences committed on the society.

The government agreed that hate could not hide behind the colour of any religion.

“We would not have liked the government to come in at all, but in certain areas when religious freedom, harmony and orderly progress is gravely affected, it has to intervene… Today what are we fighting about? We have more important things to achieve as a nation — people are starving without jobs,” Justice K.M. Joseph, hearing Bench with Justice B.V. Nagarathna, observed.

The remarks from the Bench came after Uttar Pradesh informed the court that it had registered 580 cases of hate speech in 2021-2022. Of these, 160 were suo motu registered by the police. Uttarakhand said that it had registered 118 cases.

“This [hate speech] is a complete menace, nothing short of it,” Justice Joseph said.

‘Peddling agendas’

During the hearing, the court highlighted the problem of hate speech on television. It said that TV channels and their anchors have become tools to peddle particular “agendas” through the powerful visual medium, creating divisiveness and violent instincts in the society to win their TRP (or television rating point) wars.

“We require a free and balanced media in India. But they are not balanced… We have got TV for decades now, but you [government] have not thought of anything for TV and therefore it has become a free-for-all,” Justice Nagarathna said.

Asking whether any anchor has been “taken off air” to send a message against triggering hate or bias on TV, the court said that “if freedom is exercised with an agenda or to promote an agenda, you are not actually serving the people but some other cause. Then you have to be dealt with.” The court said that the anchors and the editorial heads of the channels decided the content, adding that it was also dictated by the “money” behind the channels.

Watch | What is ‘hate speech’?

‘Name-calling is denigrating’

Justice Joseph, who said he was speaking for himself, said that he found it denigrating how TV channels resorted to “name-calling”. He referred to the man accused of urinating on a fellow passenger in an Air India flight in this regard. “The type of words used against him… He is an undertrial. Please do not denigrate anyone. Dignity is also part of Article 21 (right to life),” said Justice Joseph.

Justice Nagarathna said that the exercise of free speech by one could not violate the right to dignity and free speech of others.

“They [TV channels] have to be very clear that they cannot go on TV and speak their minds whichever way they want… That is not the exercise of freedom… Freedom comes with responsibility,” Justice Joseph observed.

The court referred to TV debates dissolving into slanging matches where some invitees were muted. Justice Joseph said that such actions affected the viewers’ right to be informed.

Editorial | Vital intervention: On the Supreme Court order against hate speech

‘Media must self-regulate’

Additional Solicitor General K.M. Nataraj said that the government intervened against the media only in “exceptional circumstances”. The onus was on the media to self-regulate and exercise prior restraint. The government was considering legislation and even “comprehensive” amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure to address the issues highlighted by the court, he said. Meanwhile, individuals wronged could avail of either the mechanisms under the Indian Penal Code or the defamation law.

But Justice Joseph said that while the government was “pondering” ways to tackle the problems, including bringing in a legislation, people could not expect to wait in the serpentine queue to get relief.

“What is the point of relief after everything has vapourised?” the judge asked, posting the case after a month.

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