The infamous judicial activism of the apex court is now coming for the fundamental right of free speech and expression.
Last week, a bench of justices K M Joseph and B V Nagarathna, hearing petitions seeking a curb on hate speech, stated that it wanted a free and balanced press in India, and asked why can’t a TV anchor, assuming they were propagating hate speech, be taken off air.
The court also noted that TRP-driven media was dividing the society to garner viewership numbers.
The Supreme Court’s observations against the television news anchors is problematic for many reasons.
Had a minister, from the ruling government, made the same comments, it would have been hailed as the death of democracy and free speech. However, in a democracy where everyone is equal, the courts’ utterances are more equal than everyone else.
One, the court wishes for the press to be free and balanced.
However, who decides the definition of free and balanced? In the age of social media, the ideologies of news channels and their anchors are as clear as the North Star in the night sky, thus allowing people to choose the channels they wish to subscribe and watch.
Even the ‘free’ part is contentious. Is the apex court trying to dictate how the press ownership must work?
While corporations usher money into the media sector, they bring with them their own agendas.
However, this is where the free market comes into play. The better news channel shall thrive, while the others may barely survive.
Two, the justices expressed their concerns against news channels chasing TRPs (television rating points), and stated that while competing with each other, the channels were creating a division within the society.
By that logic, every communal violence in the history of India, starting from a thousand years ago, must be pinned to the news anchors.
Divisions within the society, underlying or visible, transcend the routine bickering on TV debates.
In fact, the very same debates are a testament to the hidden tensions and divisions within the society many wish to be ignorant about. Also, what is wrong if news channels, like OTT platforms or any consumer-driven business, compete for viewership?
Three, in what can be termed as the mother of ironies, the court remarked at how the recent Air India case had been covered in media, and how the culprit was given names and belittled.
The justices stated that everyone had dignity. This is when a few months ago, the court took Nupur Sharma to the cleaners for violence ushered by radicals on the ground.
It must be recalled that it was the court that said that Sharma’s loose tongue had put the entire country on fire, and was responsible for whatever was happening in the country.
It was only after strong backlash and criticism from the general public that the court agreed to club all her FIRs in another hearing, finally acknowledging the threat to her life.
Four, quite like during Sharma’s episode, the apex court, in its observations, questioned the role of the anchors, stating they mute a panelist, or do not allow an opposition voice.
However, the question that arises is what business does the apex court have telling how a private employee running a private show for a private corporation must conduct their affairs?
If today the court orders how the anchors must conduct their debates, tomorrow they may dictate the topics they should restrict themselves to.
In the future, the same restrictions, in the name of curbing hate speech, may be applied to the general public running their blogs, channels, and other digital publications.
Five, the courts also attacked the visual medium, stating that it was easier to divide people because of the nature of television, and the audience was not mature to see through it.
In India, television news has become the phenomenon it is only after the mid-2000s, and to say there was no division in India before that would be incorrect.
For the court to comment, even as a general observation, on the maturity of the audience when it comes to news channels is necessary, for all these elements are subjective.
Be it freedom, neutrality, or agenda of a news channel, it all is very subjective, and depends on the consumer who is given the right to make that choice by the Constitution of India, not the courts.
News channels are far from perfect, but so are the courts, with millions of cases pending.
Perhaps, the television anchors do not focus on the right issues, but that is not for the courts to decide, for these are private broadcasters, paying their taxes, following the law of the land, and running an enterprise.
Let the free market punish or reward the anchors.
The origin of the divisions within the society, within communities, cannot be attributed to a few hours of prime time television, or publications, or movies or books, not merely in India, but globally.
In doing so, the courts are not looking for a solution, but a scapegoat for what they believe is a prophetic cause. In reality, it is just judicial activism curbing free speech.
If the justices do not like it, they must not watch the television news.
Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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