Regulating free speech

Context: The Supreme Court’s has questioned the Union government on the measures it can and is willing to take against communally slanted television coverage.

More on news:

  • It appears to be an attempt to bring about a commitment to a course of action that will curb inflammatory journalism on broadcast media.
  • The Court has distinguished between free speech and ‘hate speech’.

Give some latest instances of partial news coverage. Also, mention the point-of-view of the Centre and the Court.

  • Coverage of Tablighi jamaat event: The Court is hearing petitions against the communal colour given by some channels to the incidence of large clusters of COVID-19 infections among those who attended a Tablighi Jamaat event in New Delhi.
  • The portrayal of the participants as intentional super-spreaders was vicious and motivated.
  • Case of Sudarshan news: The case of Sudarshan News, which began a series on the channel that propagated hate against Muslims, is an open example.
  • The government has merely administered a ‘caution’ to the channel and asked it to moderate the content of future episodes.
  • Centre’s point of view: The Centre’s affidavit has stated that media coverage “predominantly struck a balanced and neutral perspective”.
    • It further stated that it was open to the viewers to choose from a number of varying perspectives given by different media channels.
  • Court’s point of view: The Court is keen to know what action has been taken under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act against offending broadcasters.
  • The Court appears unconvinced that the present mechanism of self-regulation, i.e. The National Broadcasting Standards Authority is effective.

What are the safeguards provided under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act?

  • Government’s powers: The government is empowered under the Act to prohibit transmission of programmes that violate the programme or advertising codes (Section 19) and even an entire channel, in public interest (Section 20).
  • In the past, channels have been asked by the I&B Ministry to take some programmes off the air.
  • Penal law: Depending on the damage done to individuals or institutions, or even society at large, there is enough scope for action under the penal law.

Way forward

  • The distinction between free speech and hate speech should be at the heart of any order creating a new mechanism; to deal with broadcast media excesses.

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