Is Regulating the News Channels a Violation of Article 19?
Authored by Rishav Raj, a first-year student at Chanakya National Law University
Freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed to all the citizens by the Constitution of India enshrined under Article 19(1)(a). The law states that “All citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression.” However, this right is not absolute given Article19(2) of the Constitution. Article 19(2) states that “Nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or about contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”.
In other words, even though freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right, it is not absolute and can be subjected to reasonable restrictions on grounds such as incitement to offence, defamation, contempt of court, public order, decency or morality, and friendly relations with foreign states. Absolute, unchecked, and unlimited freedom would lead to chaos and disorder.
Article 19 vis-à-vis News Channels in India
The press or news channels in India have no special rights or privileges about freedom of speech and expression, their measure of freedom is the same as that of an individual under Article 19(1)(a). Thus, the restrictions that can be imposed on them are similar to how individual rights are subject to reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2).
News channels in India are not regulated by the government and there is no statutory regulatory mechanism for the news channels. They are governed by self-regulatory bodies like the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and News Broadcasters Federation created by them. The NBA has created a Code of Ethics to regulate the content to be broadcast. However, these are mere guidelines that fizzle out and fail to be effective or achieve anything concrete.
It has become a pattern for several news channels to deviate from their job, i.e., journalism, and instead broadcast malicious, biased, and regressive content. News channels these days transform themselves into a Janta Adalat or ‘public court’ and intervene in the proceedings of the court. Media trials vilify individuals and form public opinions against the suspect or the accused even before the court takes cognizance of the case resulting in the rights of individuals being trampled. News channels in the garb of exercising the right of free expression cannot broadcast hate-fuelled and unethical programmes that violate the rights of other individuals. Article 19(1)(a) does not entitle or give a license to incite hatred towards a person or community. Protection of individual rights is as important as freedom of speech and expression.
Recently a television show on a news channel was barred from being telecast by the Supreme court because it aimed to vilify a particular community. A bench comprising of Justices DY Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and KM Joseph Chandrachud, expressing strong objections to the content of the programme said, “Prima facie, it does appear to the Court that the intent, object, and purpose of the episodes which have been telecast is to vilify the Muslim community. An insidious attempt has been made to insinuate that the community is involved in a conspiracy to infiltrate the civil services. The drift, tenor and content of the episodes are to bring the community into public hatred and disrepute…Any attempt to vilify a community must be viewed with disfavour by this court as a custodian of Constitutional values.’’ Justice DY Chandrachud added, “We have to protect free speech. Equally, we have a constitutional duty to protect human dignity. That’s as equally important.”
There needs to be a line drawn between free speech and hatred. Thus, statutory regulation is the need of the hour. The government is well within its limits to roll out a reasonable code of conduct or regulation to make sure that the media’s right of free expression does not supersede the rights of other individuals and that they do not violate other provisions of the Constitution while exercising their right of free expression.
Mere regulation to maintain a balance between freedom of speech and expression and public decency and morality will not amount to a violation of Article 19 of the regulations imposed are reasonable and within the permissible limitations in clause (2) of Article 19.