The Big Picture- SC Ruling on Media Censorship
Stating that it will not regulate media content, the Supreme Court recently said that the role of a court or a statutory authority will come into picture only after the complaint is levelled against the telecast or publication. A Bench led by Chief Justice of India J.S Khehar made it clear that pre broadcast or pre publication censorship is not the business of the Court and all grievances against objectionable content will be dealt in accordance with the law of the land after its publication. The media has rights under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and expression. The Court also heard PILs by an NGO which demanded a regulatory body for media on the grounds that the Centre had failed to regulate the content of the broadcast media.
We do not have a regulatory body for the electronic media in the country. A lot of private channels by themselves have set up the national broadcasting standards of India but that is largely self regulation. In addition to that most of these channels operate under the framework of the Cable Network Regulations and that does not have any prior regulatory body. If something goes wrong, the Ministry steps in and punishes the channels by sometimes taking them off the air for a day or so. India needs to have a regulatory body which should be set up with statutory backing so that complaints could go on an ongoing basis. However, the Supreme Court has refused to go into that issue.
There are two issues at present; whether there should be a regulatory body or not and if it is there what should be its role. Regarding pre-censorship, the Supreme Court orders seems to be right because it would be an absurd situation. Regulations means where norms can be formulated and complaints can be registered which should dealt in accordance with natural justice. But generally this has been not welcomed. Some of the big players have welcomed this move on a voluntary basis but at the end of the day such a body is toothless tiger as what it will be able to do is impose fines, publish retractions etc.
Statutory backing is a must for these bodies because then the judgement of such body should carry the same weight as the judgements of a court of law. There will be stern action for repeat offenders. The procedures will take less time. It is ultimately for the media houses to take the call on how they want to function. Defamation cases take years to resolve and common people don’t have the might to fight for so long.
Every content coming to the people from print and electronic media as well as internet cannot be monitored as it is coming in bulk. What can be done is that if there is a specific issue which is defamatory or anti-national, that can be looked into and necessary action can be taken. Justice Katju who headed the Press Council of India suggested the electronic media to be handled by Press Council of India itself and complaints could be dealt there as it works under a statute. But this suggestion was not welcomed at that point of time.
A permanent body with infrastructure available to deal complaints from all over India with judicial and quasi-judicial members along with one or two members from public will ensure much more credibility. The way forward ultimately has to be legislation because without that, everything will be a temporary measure. The electronic media is here to stay. In case of its worst excesses, the social media is there to keep a check on it. The danger of over regulating electronic media is that there might be a demand for a similar regulator for social media as well. Therefore, there is a very thin line between regulation and censorship which has to be differentiated carefully.