In the ongoing Supreme Court case against Sudarshan News, the central government tipped its hand and revealed that more than cracking down on bigoted content on broadcast media, it is interested in censoring online news media. In an affidavit filed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) before the apex court, the government said it wants the court to lay down guidelines for “web based digital media” before laying down guidelines for mainstream electronic and print media.

MIB argued that unlike electronic and print media whose regulation is covered by law or court cases, online media, which includes “web magazines”, “web-based news channels” and “web-based newspapers”, are “completely uncontrolled” with very wide reach. The affidavit, filed by Vijay Kaushik, under secretary in the ministry, in fact argued that either the apex court should leave wider issues to be considered by the central government and related legislature, or start with regulation of digital media. The government argued that by virtue of using public property, that is, “spectrum” and “internet”, online news media should be regulated by the government, just as electronic media is for using “airwaves”.

The MIB filed this affidavit while the top court was hearing a PIL filed by Firoz Iqbal Khan against Sudarshan News for broadcasting a show with Islamophobic content. Suresh Chavhanke, the channel’s editor-in-chief, had hosted an episode titled “UPSC Jihad” about the supposed rise of Muslims in Civil services on the programme “Bindas Bol”. On September 15, the Supreme Court had directed the channel to not broadcast the remaining episodes of the show until further orders.

‘Hate speech is rare in the country, let govt regulate it,’ says MIB

MIB’s affidavit “submitted” to the court that it should restrict itself to the narrow mandate of the petition by Khan instead of expanding its scope to consider “wider guidelines of general application”. The ministry submitted that if the apex court is still interested in pursuing this further, the court would need a “detailed affidavit on the part of the Central Government and possibly a wider representation of the stake holders”.

The affidavit contended that “hate speech” is rare in the country because of the different statutory and self-regulatory mechanisms that are there in the country. It said that “hate speech”, “by its very nature” is incapable of being defined as it is determined by specific facts. Thus, it advised the apex court to not expand the scope of the petition and consider larger questions around hate speech.

The MIB basically said that if the Supreme Court wants to consider wider issues of propagation of “hate speech” by TV news channels, it should either let the central government and the Parliament come out with a law or first examine the same issues in the context of digital media.

Why the emphasis on digital media?

MIB’s affidavit has made the following arguments to call for the regulation of digital news media:

  • Print and broadcast media are sufficiently regulated by law, self-regulatory mechanisms: Through voluntary industry associations such as the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), News Broadcasters Federation (NBF), Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC), and Consumer Complaint Council (CCC) along with the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, there is enough regulation over electronic media. Both newspapers and news channels need to be registered with or licensed by statutory authorities.
  • Digital media is unregulated: The affidavit contends that by “the very nature of its composition”, print and electronic media “rarely cross the line” where it requires judicial intervention. Digital media, on the other hand, “by its very nature” remains unregulated.
  • Too easy to start a web-based news portal: Unlike a newspaper or a new channel, where there are “several eligibility, criterions and qualifying standards [sic]”, online portals such as “web magazines”, “web based portals”, “web based newspapers” or “web based channels”, there are no eligibility criteria or qualifications that are statutorily stipulated. No registration is required and no law, except “some provisions of Information and Technology Act [sic]” govern their functioning. Anybody with a smartphone and “desire to start” can start their own YouTube channel, irrespective of “literacy” or access to a television or DTH/cable subscription. For web magazines and web newspapers, only “a will to start” and a device — either laptop or mobile phone — is required.
  • Online news media uses public property: Just as broadcast media uses airwaves which, as per the affidavit, is public property, online news media uses “spectrum” and “internet” which are also public property. What is left unsaid is that by virtue of using “public property”, online news media’s regulation falls within the purview of the central government.
  • Online media is easily accessible, has wide reach: Unlike print media which is accessible only to those who read that particular language, or electronic media which is accessible only to those with a television and a related subscription, viewers only need a “will to watch” and a mobile device. This is why online media has “wider reach and impact”.
  • Threat of “harm” to the “very fabric of the nation”: Since clearance from Home Ministry from a “national security point of view” is required for TV channels and from other unspecified statutory authorities for print media”, “the security of the nation” is taken care at the time of registration of granting licence. That is not the case with digital media which requires no registration.
  • Digital media spreads hatred: Ironically in a case where a TV news channel has been accused of spreading bigotry, the MIB argued that digital media spreads “venomous hatred” and deliberately instigates violence and terrorism, and indulges in “rampant” “tarnishing” of “image of individuals and institutions”.
  • Digital media is global: Unlike electronic media which normally has a geographical barrier and “rarely” has a global presence, there are no such restrictions on digital media, both in terms of content sent from and received in India.

Central govt already considering a statutory body to regulate news channels

Interestingly, in the affidavit, MIB said that the central government is already considering how to balance a statutory redressal mechanism with ensuring “journalistic freedom, honouring and respecting the freedom of speech and expression and ensuring a mechanism which would ensure impartiality”. Since this is under “active consideration”, MIB advised the court to “not to dwell much on this issue”.

Currently, when complaints are received, they are sent to the respective self-regulatory bodies depending on membership. In case of TV channels that aren’t members of any self-regulatory bodies, MIB takes up the matter directly. There is also an inter-ministerial committee that takes up complaints suo moto or when complaints are brought before it.

How TV news channels are currently regulated

The affidavit argues that Sudarshan TV is one of 385 regular news channels that show both news and non-entertainment programmes like talk shows and are registered/licenced by the central government under the Uplinking and Downlinking Policy Guidelines.  The existing voluntary associations — News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and News Broadcasters Federation (NBF) — have their own, “robust” self-regulatory mechanisms which “can inspire confidence”.

NBA is headed by former SC judge Justice A.K. Sikri while NBF has told the central government that it is in the process of appointing a former judge to head its self-regulatory mechanism. Despite that, the affidavit conceded that of the 385 registered news channels, 237 broadcasters aren’t a part of either association since membership is voluntary.

The affidavit called other self-regulatory mechanisms — Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) for general entertainment channels and Consumer Complaint Council (CCC) for advertising — “effective” mechanisms that “ensure impartiality”. But since all the four mechanisms are voluntary, MIB itself said that that their membership requires examination.

I&B Minister earlier called for self-regulation of digital news

The central government has had conflicting positions on regulation of digital media in the past. Last month, Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar called for self-regulation of digital news at an event organised by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI).

Javadekar had called the manipulation of public opinion over social media platforms a “critical threat to public life” and called for self-regulation by the industry bodies and digital media companies.

Read: Affidavit filed by MIB

Read more: Sudarshan TV case: Centre tells Supreme Court to look into regulating digital media before electronic or TV media