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Sudarshan TV case: There has to be a balance between speech and dignity, says Supreme Court

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court today observed that there has to be a balance between speech and dignity. The top court was hearing a plea against television channel Sudarshan News, pertaining to its programme titled ‘UPSC Jihad’ which runs into several episodes. It has been alleged that the episodes contain comments about how Muslims have “infiltrated” the Indian civil services.

The bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra, and KM Joseph noted that if Zakat Foundation, which has been blamed in the programme, feels it has been defamed by the channel, it can approach civil remedies or a court to enforce damages.

The bench, however, added that here hate speech needs to be seen as targeting specific pockets of a community like LGBTQ etc.

During the hearing Justice Chandrachud expressed discontent towards the affidavit filed by Sudarshan News where it was stated that NDTV aired a programme on ‘Hindu Terror’ and another on ‘Saffron terror’, both anchored by journalist Barkha Dutt.

This is a gratuitous submission. We didn’t ask you to tell us what was telecast by NDTV. You don’t have the right to shoot your mouth off just because something was asked of you during the hearing. Somebody in 2031 starts mentioning about your program in 2020 then what about passage of time? That can’t be answer to our question

Justice Chandrachud remarked

Justice Chandrachud then placed two questions before advocate Vishnu Shankar Jain, appearing for Sudarshan TV. Firstly, do they think they complied with all laws when they telecast four episodes in the past? Secondly, will the remaining episodes be in the same tenor? Advocate Jain answered in the affirmative to both the queries. 

Justice Chandrachud stated that how one complies with the law could be a matter of perception too. The counsel has answered to both queries with a yes, and now the court will consider it.

In response to Jain’s request of going through all the four episodes minute by minute, Justice Chandrachud stated that this has never been a line of precedent in a civilised jurisdiction. If someone objects to a book, the Court cannot read all 700 pages and then point out what’s wrong.

Advocate Shadan Farasat, arguing for the petitioner, said that the high court had given the government the opportunity to take action (against this channel) but the government did not. He said that it this inaction on the part of the government that compelled the court to intervene. He cited excerpts from Sudarshan News to show that the entire programme is hate speech and maligns an entire community with obnoxious statements and innuendos.

Farasat added that hate speech doesn’t exist in complete isolation, but it operates in certain context and facts. Suresh Chavhanke, the editor of the channel, was given a chance to protect his right to free speech, but he said he will continue in the same tenor and will not change.

Such hate speeches diminish a group’s right to equality and equal opportunities. It is an affront to dignity. A pervasive environment of hate speech will deprive people of real rights and opportunities

said Farasat

Talking about episode 4, which has already been telecast, Farasat stated it is said that bhaichara or brotherhood is something that needs to be stopped and the host also says Muslims are stabbing Dalits in the back and that is the recurrent theme. According to Farasat the show vilifies a particular community and strikes at the core of civic dignity. In a multicultural society, there is responsibility on all pillars including the judiciary which has to ensure that every individual’s honour is guarded. 

Farasat added that Article 14 with Article 21 have to be balanced in cases where postponement orders are passed. In a case like this where risk never vanishes, a permanent injunction on narrow principles of law is something that the court should go by. As far as violation of Article 14 and 21 is concerned, the court, under Article 226 and 32, is authorized to be the protector of fundamental rights. 

Justice Joseph stated that there are many programmes today which are offensive. In India there is a statutory mechanism where the government can interfere. If the government does not exercise its power under Section 19 and 20, then the courts can.

Read Also: Sudarshan TV case: Zakat Foundation wants to intervene, says all its foreign fundings have always been reported to the government

Justice Chandrachud opined that as the present case is not a trademark suit, the court cannot say: “Don’t use a man with a beard or cap.” The court also cannot order in specifics as it will denigrate the standard of a Constitutional court. He said that it is true that there has to be a balance between speech and dignity. The community here is a large amorphous group and the Court cannot ask them to approach civil remedy.

–         India Legal Bureau

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