Supreme Court will hear a plea on February 3 to restrain government from ‘censoring’ BBC documentary

Right to freedom of speech and expression incorporates the right to receive and disseminate information, the petition said

January 30, 2023 11:19 am | Updated 08:37 pm IST - NEW DELHI

People watch the BBC documentary “India: The Modi Question” screened by CITU at Petta Junction in Kochi. File.

People watch the BBC documentary “India: The Modi Question” screened by CITU at Petta Junction in Kochi. File. | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to list on February 3 a petition seeking a direction to restrain the government from “censoring” the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary titled ‘India: The Modi Question.

Appearing before a Bench led by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, senior advocate C.U. Singh made an oral mentioning of the petition filed by senior journalist N. Ram, Member of Parliament Mahua Moitra, and advocate Prashant Bhushan for early listing. The Union of India through the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Twitter Communications India Private Limited and Google India Private Limited have been named respondents in the case.

Also read: This is how they waste precious time of Supreme Court: Rijiju on those moving court against blocking of BBC documentary

“Criticism of the government or its policies or even the judgment of the Supreme Court does not tantamount to violation of sovereignty and integrity of India… All citizens, including the Press, have the fundamental right to view, form an informed opinion, critique, report on and lawfully circulate the contents of the documentary as right to freedom of speech and expression incorporates the right to receive and disseminate information,” the petition said.

According to the plea, the Ministry, under Rule 16(3) of the Information Technology Rules of 2021 and Section 69(A) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 had on January 20 sent a legal request to Twitter India to block 50 tweets concerning and even containing links to the documentary.

The tweets of Mr. Bhushan and Ms. Moitra were among those taken down. YouTube links of the video were blocked, the petition said.

The petitioners referred to reports of how students of the Rajasthan Central University in Ajmer were suspended for watching the film. The Jawaharlal Nehru University administration had issued an advisory to cancel a screening to maintain “peace and harmony” on the campus. They said there was news of detention of students and the presence of riot police at the Jamia Milia Islamia campus in Delhi.

The series is reported to be critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in connection with the 2002 Gujarat riots. Mr. Modi was Gujarat Chief Minister at the time of the violence in the State.

The petition noted that Kanchan Gupta, senior advisor of the Ministry, had tweeted that the documentary was blocked on YouTube and Twitter following the orders of the Secretary of the Ministry on January 20 under emergency powers in the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021.

The petitioners have urged the court to call for and quash orders directly or indirectly censoring the documentary. They said that the January 20 order and subsequent proceedings were not in the public domain.

“The government has chosen expediency over necessity and proportionality in their response to the documentary… The contents of the BBC documentary and tweets of Moitra and Bhushan are protected under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. The contents of the documentary series do not fall under any restriction on free speech or restrictions imposed under Section 69A of the IT Act,” the petition said.

It referred to apex court judgments which had held that the right of a filmmaker to make and exhibit his film was part of his fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.

The petitioners submitted that censoring free speech through opaque orders was manifestly arbitrary and curtailed the fundamental right to seek judicial review.

The petition argued that the powers of the Centre, which range from publishing ‘Codes of Practice’ and establishing an inter-departmental committee for hearing grievances to appointing a Ministry officer for the exercise of the powers under Rule 16, were part of the government oversight mechanism stayed by the Bombay High Court in an interim order.

A separate petition has been filed in the Supreme Court on the same issue by advocate M.L. Sharma. The court has agreed to hear it next week.

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