THE Bombay High Court on Monday asked the Union Government why there should not be a statutory body to regulate the content broadcast through television news channels, a poser coming in the backdrop of frenzied media coverage of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. The court sought to know why the electronic media should have an “open hand” over its coverage. “Is there a statutory mechanism for (TV news) broadcasters?” the HC asked. “Just as how the Press Council of India exists for the print media, why don’t you (Union Government) think of a similar council for the electronic media? Why should they have an open hand?” said a bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice GS Kulkarni.
The bench was hearing a bunch of public interest litigations (PILs) seeking that the press, particularly TV news channels, be directed to exercise restrain in their reportage on the death of Rajput (34) and related probe by multiple agencies. The pleas, filed by several retired senior police officers, activists and private citizens, claim that the press has been conducting a “media trial” into the case, ascribing roles and presuming guilt of the accused persons, thus hampering a fair probe and trial into the matter. Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Anil Singh, who appeared for the Union Government, told the court that news channels “did not have an open hand as such.”
“It is not as if the Government is not doing anything. It does take action on complaints received (against channels),” Singh said. “But ultimately, the Government cannot control everything. The press has freedom and its rights,” he said. The bench, however, pointed out that the Government’s own affidavit, filed previously in the court, showed that on numerous occasions, it had forwarded the complaints it received, to private bodies such as the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and News Broadcasters Federation (NBF). Earlier in the day, senior advocate Devadatt Kamat, who appeared for the NBA, had told the court that the Government should be responsible in matters concerning media reportage, rather than outsourcing the responsibility to private bodies. Kamat said that there existed statutory provisions and rules under the Cable TV Act and it was the Centre’s responsibility to enforce these provisions.
Instead, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting often forwarded the complaints it receives to the NBA and NBF, he said. Kamat showed instances of complaints against news coverage in the Sushant case having been “forwarded” by the Government to the NBA. In the past, one TV news channel had refused to abide by the NBA’s recommendations in another case, saying it was not part of the association, Kamat said. “The question is whether this outsourcing is permissible or whether the authorities have to be responsible to enforce what the statute provides,” Kamat said.
“When Government has a regime in place, where is the question of GOI (Government of India) abdicating its duties and asking these private, self-righteous associations (to look into complaints)?” he said. Kamat argued that a media trial violated an accused’s right to life and personal liberty as guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution, and that it amounted to an interference in the administration of justice. He urged the court to look at the “allied issue” of the “leakage of information by investigating agencies” while their probes are going on. The HC will continue hearing the arguments in the case on Wednesday.