Senior Advocate Arvind Datar, appearing for the News Broadcasting Standards Authority(NBSA), told the Bombay High Court on Friday that the practice of "media trial" is followed by only a few channels, and that should not be a reason to tighten the control over the entire electronic media.
He was making submissions before a division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Dutta and Justice G S Kulkarni of the Bombay High Court in a batch of petitions seeking regulation on "media trial" in the context of reporting of the Sushant Singh Rajput death case.
He submitted that self-regulation of media is the norm in all civilized countries and that state control over media can affect press freedom.
While hearing the Additional Solicitor General for the Union of India, the bench had expressed concerns over the lack of statutory regulation on electronic media and that the concept of self-regulation of media has failed.
'Self-Regulation Of Media Has Failed', Says Bombay HC In Plea Against 'Media Trial' In SSR Case
Responding to such concerns, Mr. Datar submitted :
"Media is the eyes and ears of the public. The press is considered a trustee and it discharges its duty. A free press, a free electronic media is the heart and soul of democracy. To maintain this freedom, the opportunity of self-regulation is given. Once there is state regulation, there will be multiple problems.
Self-regulation of media is the norm in all civilized countries. In most democracies, by and large, there is no fetter on free speech and free expression. India has taken the path of Article 19(2) after the first amendment. If you add restrictions beyond a point where the functioning of the press becomes a problem, then that has been struck down."
Citing the example of the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Sahara case where a plea a for statutory regulation was expressly rejected, Datar said that the Supreme Court and High Courts have zealously guarded the freedom of the press.
Datar then responded to the Court's query why there was no statutory body like the Press Council of India for electronic media, Datar said :
"With due respect, it is not correct to say that electronic media is completely unregulated and is going wild. The NBSA has passed several orders over the years. The Code of Conduct adopted by the Press Council is exactly similar to the NBA code of conduct. The Ministry has taken action against channels. Electronic media is subject to a statutory framework The conduct of three or four channels should not be taken to paint the entire media in a poor light.
Just because a few channels have gone out of control, that should not be a ground to impose severe restrictions on the entire electronic media. We cannot discount the fact that the media in India, through investigative journalism or sting operations, have exposed many irregularities.
Not just in India. The Watergate scandal was brought out by 2 journalists (Bob Woodword and Carl Bernstein)"
Thereafter, Datar referred to certain orders passed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting asserting that appropriate action can be taken in case of any violation. He then submitted that the current NBA chairman is a former Supreme Court judge, referring to Justice AK Sikri, who is the chairman. NBA is capable of deciding a violation of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, Datar said.
Sr Advocate Datar also cited the examples of instances where the designated authority under the I&B Ministry passed an order warning or putting out an advisory for violation of the programme code.
When the Court enquired who was passing the order exactly, Datar submitted it was the Director of Broadcasting, who has passed the order in most of the 200 such instances cited in the compilation submitted by one of the petitioners.
"Is there any channel against which action was taken for taking part or indulging in media trial?", CJ Dipankar Datta asked.
"Not so far I think, I will check and get back", Datar responded.
"Most orders are in the nature of warnings and advisories. There is a regime of warning and advisories", Justice Kulkarni remarked, referring to examples cited by Adv Datar of action taken by the ministry and authority under it.
In the 2018 Common Cause case, the Supreme Court directed the Centre to inform about the grievance redressal mechanism available to the public against broadcast and radio stations, Datar continued.
The Ministry issues advisories to news channels from time to time. Advisories were issued in the context of Ayodhya judgment asking channels to show restraint while debating on the verdict. Advisory was also issued to the media for coverage of anti-terrorist operations. Such advisories are not sent to the print media, Datar urged.
He further submitted that there is an advisory on selective leaks by the police to the media. In 2010, the Home Ministry issued an advisory on police briefing for the media. Now, some channels are given selective information, which are reported attributing to "sources", Datar added.
Datar then began reading the NBSA's order against Aaj Tak, Zee News, India TV and News24 for insensitive reporting of Sushant Singh Rajput's death.
Referring to NBSA's order imposing a fine of Rs.1 lakh on Aaj Tak, Datar conceded that the fine amount is not big for any channel these days but the direction for public apology can have serious consequences as it affects the credibility of the channel, he argued.
At this juncture, Court interrupted Senior Advocate Datar and asked him to continue his submissions on the next date of hearing which is Monday, October 19.
Before rising, Chief Justice Datta pointed to a quote he saw in the background in Advocate Datar's office and said if everyone follows this the world will be a better place.
"Yes your Lordship, I really believe in this Zoroastrian teaching of Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds" Adv Datar said with a smile.