Stifling democratic debate

The show cause notices issued to three television channels by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on Friday for their >coverage of the Yakub Memon issue and events in the run-up to his execution, are unwarranted and have little basis in law. The notices were issued to NDTV 24X7, ABP News and Aaj Tak, for alleged defamation and aspersions cast by them against the integrity of the President and the judiciary. A perusal of the content under question shows only critical discussion by individuals of the judgment dismissing the mercy petition. There was nothing there amounting to defamation or contempt of court, nor was any aspersion cast on the office of the President beyond mere criticism of the decision to reject the mercy petition. Yakub Memon’s execution led to >widespread debate on the issue of capital punishment and on whether his crimes deserved the highest punishment, apart from questions over what many felt were procedural lapses in the handling of his mercy petitions. Criticism of the President’s actions and of court judgments are normal in the public discourse and are an integral part of the freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 19 1(a) of the Constitution. The claim made in the notices that the broadcasts by two of the channels were likely to incite violence or promote anti-national attitudes is also a specious one as registering a contrarian opinion about death penalty is not by itself inflammatory or seditious. For the I&B Ministry to send a notice demanding a reply from the channels, which if not received would invite penal provisions leading to the suspension of permissions, is an outrageous overreach of its powers.

The section on the programme code of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994 that has been invoked to send the notices has clauses that are too broad and that could be misused as in the present cases. While print publications in India have been allowed a wide degree of freedom of expression in consonance with the constitutional provisions, broadcast channels have not been given the same leeway as in addition to the general laws they are also governed by the broadcast code that regulates content. The logic behind this distinction is that the audio-visual medium has greater and more instantaneous impact than print. Also, the licensing of the broadcast spectrum, which is a public resource, gives the government the authority to lay down additional restrictions. Yet the distinction appears invidious, and there is no reason why the broadcast medium should be subjected to more stringent restrictions than print. Both types of media serve the same purpose of informing and promoting public discussions of issues, necessary in a democratic society. It is dangerous for the power to regulate broadcasting to be vested in the I&B Ministry that can block content that is not to the liking of the government, using the broadly framed content code. The distinction between the print and broadcast media should be removed and the broadcast medium allowed in full the freedom of expression guaranteed under the Constitution.

Read: >Full text of the verdict

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Printable version | Oct 31, 2020 8:16:05 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/stifling-democratic-debate/article7522897.ece

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