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Centre Asks SC to Regulate ‘Venomous’ Digital Media Before TV News

In a fresh affidavit filed on 21 September, the Centre told SC that it should start with “web based digital media”

Updated
India
4 min read

In a fresh affidavit filed on 21 September, the Centre has once again told the Supreme Court that instead of setting out guidelines for mainstream and electronic media on hate speech – as is being considered in the context of Sudarshan News’ ‘UPSC Jihad’ show – the court should start the exercise with “web based digital media.”

The court is hearing a petition and several intervention applications which have sought to prevent the broadcast of Sudarshan News editor in chief Suresh Chavhanke’s show with its allegations on Muslims trying to ‘infiltrate’ the bureaucracy.

The Supreme Court on 15 September had restricted the broadcast of further episodes of Chavhanke’s show on the issue, finding that its prima facie object was to “vilify the Muslim community” and contained “palpably erroneous” information.

On 17 September, a bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and KM Joseph had expressed its concerns with the language and content of the programme, and warned that it appeared to target the entire Muslim community. Sudarshan News was asked to file a fresh affidavit over the weekend explaining how they would assuage the court’s concerns.

The Centre was also asked to file an affidavit setting out what steps it had taken in pursuance of a previous judgment of the apex court in Common Cause vs Union of India (2018) in which the Centre had been asked to frame rules to address the lacunae in the self-regulation system for electronic media.

In its previous affidavit, the Centre had argued that there was already a system for self-regulation of electronic media, and that if the court was going to consider regulation of media, then they should consider this in respect of digital media first.

WHAT THE CENTRE HAS SAID IN ITS NEW AFFIDAVIT

In the fresh affidavit filed on Monday, 21 September, the Centre has built on this argument. They note that when it comes to TV broadcasters and print media, there are several eligibility, criterions and qualifying standards to be fulfilled. This includes a rigorous registration process and, when it comes to TV news, a performance guarantee and minimum net worth requirements.

“As against this, there is a parallel media which is going on with wider reach and impact,” the Centre has said. “The way electronic media uses “airwaves” [which is a public property], the web based digital media also uses “spectrum” and “internet” which is also a public property.”

The Centre claims that “web based digital media”, including digital web portals, web magazines and channels on video platforms like YouTube, are in lakhs and crores in numbers. They say there are no eligibility criteria or qualifications for this under law, and that no registration is required for these. National security considerations are also addressed by the requirement for clearance from the Home Ministry for TV channels, and other statutory authorities in case of print media.

The Centre goes on to claim that by nature of their composition, “the print and electronic media would rarely cross the line which may need intervention of this Hon'ble Courts frequently.” Print media access is limited to those who have access to a particular newspaper or magazine, while the electronic media are also limited to those who have access to a TV set and subscription.

Web-based digital media, on the other hand, they argue, can be started by any individual and accessed “by anyone irrespective of either literacy or having a TV set or DTH / cable operator services.” All that one needs is a smartphone – “This shows its potential spread and its potential to harm the very fabric of any nation.”

Contrasting the possible restrictions on electronic and print media, the Centre says the spreading of “venomous hatred” on digital media is “rampant”:

“As against this, there is absolutely no check on the web based digital media. Apart from spreading venomous hatred, deliberate and intended instigation to not only cause violence but even terrorism it is also capable of indulging in tarnishing the image of individuals and institutions. The said practice is, in fact, rampant.”   
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The Centre concluded by saying that this is a matter which should be examined and dealt with by the legislature. But if the Supreme Court decides to consider it necessary to lay down guidelines, “it is the need of the hour that this Hon'ble Court starts the said exercise first with “web based digital media” which includes “web magazines” and “web-based news channels” and “web-based news-papers” as the same not only has a very wide reach but is completely uncontrolled.”

Reiterating that this should be left to the Centre and the competent legislature (ie Parliament), if the court decides to go into the wider issues of regulating hate speech, “it is absolutely inevitable to start with digital media.”

OPINDIA FILES IMPLEADMENT APPLICATION, OPPOSES SC REGULATION ON HATE SPEECH

Right-leaning websites OpIndia, Indic Collective, have also filed intervention application with the apex court in the Sudarshan TV case on Monday, 21 September. The application asks whether its constitutionally permissible for the SC to judicially legislate “impermissible speech.”

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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