AA Edit | SC’s TV channel ruling a blow for free press

The Asian Age.

Opinion, Edit

The court has carefully assessed each one of the reasons the government had cited for imposing the ban on the channel and demolished them

Supreme Court (PTI)

The Supreme Court order quashing the ban the Union government had imposed on MediaOne, a Kozhikode-based Malayalam satellite news channel, and directing the Union ministry of information and broadcasting to renew its licence in four weeks comes across as a reassurance that India remains a democratic nation and that the checks and balances its founding fathers had instituted still work. And by making it clear that the government cannot push its agenda unilaterally under some pretext or the other at the cost of fundamental rights, the apex court has lived up to its image as the north star for the India’s democratic voyage, as the Chief Justice of India who authored the judgment often describes the apex court.

The court has reminded the government one too many time on the role of an independent press in a democracy. The crux of the matter, as the court put it, is that restrictions on the freedom of the press would compel citizens to think along the same tangent as the ruling party which will inevitably result in homogenised views on critical issues. This homogeneity is antithetical to the idea of democracy and a pluralistic society, and hence unacceptable.  

The court has carefully assessed each one of the reasons the government had cited for imposing the ban on the channel and demolished them.  Asserting that the non-renewal of the licence of the channel is a restriction on the fundamental right to speech and expression as guaranteed in the Constitution and that restrictions should also be constitutional, it held that denying security clearance for the views which the channel is constitutionally entitled to hold produces a “chilling effect on free speech”. The apex court disapproved of the term “anti-establishment”, used to describe the channel, saying its very usage represents an expectation that the press must support the establishment.

The court made it unequivocally clear, for the umpteenth time, that two practices for which this government is known are unacceptable: one, to flash ‘national security’ to deny citizens their rights, and two, push its arguments in sealed covers. The government must take seriously the criticism of the court that it raised the claim of “national security” in a cavalier manner and make a careful assessment of the reiteration of the court that using the term as a tool to deny lawful remedies to citizens is incompatible with the rule of law. A government that often holds that India is the mother of all democracies must listen carefully to the apex court which has time and again told the government that it goes against the very idea of open court to present its case and reasons without disclosing them to the people on the other side. “This infringes upon the core of a right to fair hearing,” the court told the government in the toughest way possible.   

While reiterating that it will uphold the freedom of the press to the last extent, the court presented the press with a chance to introspect if it is up to its task — to speak truth to power, and provide citizens with hard facts enabling them to make choices that propel democracy in the right direction.

The takeaway for both the government and the press from the judgment is one and the same — fundamental rights are the foundation of our democracy and hence must be handled with utmost care.