Time to define limits of sedition to stop muzzling of media, says Supreme Court

FPJ BureauUpdated: Monday, May 31, 2021, 10:52 PM IST
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New Delhi: "It is time we define the limits of sedition," the Supreme Court said on Monday while staying the coercive proceedings against two Telugu TV channels -- TV5 News and ABN Andhra Jyothi; the channels were booked for airing alleged offensive speeches of YSR Cong rebel MP Krishnam Raju against party leader and Chief Minister YSR Jagan Mohan Reddy for his ham-handed handling of the pandemic.

A Bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat took a strong view of attempts to muzzle the Fourth Estate and called for defining "the limits of sedition," flagging the need to put curbs on indiscriminate use of the law against critics, journalists, social media users, activists and citizens — often for merely airing their grievances or seeking help to gain medical facilities.

"This is muzzling of the media," observed Justice L Nageswara Rao.

Justice Chandrachud, who heads the Bench, pointed out that the Apex Court had categorically told the states not to initiate penal action against the critics of Covid management measures in its April 30 order in a suo motu case.

He referred to how, in an earlier suo motu hearing, he had wondered whether sedition charges would be launched against a news channel that had published a photograph of two persons throwing the body of a Covid patient into a river from a bridge in Uttar Pradesh. "I had this case (Andhra) in mind when I said that," Justice Chandrachud said.

Both channels have urged the Supreme Court to initiate contempt proceedings against senior officials of the Andhra government for violating its order to "immediately cease any direct and indirect threats of prosecution and arrest of citizens, who air their grievances." The State had accused them of sedition for reporting news about the pandemic in an "unbiased manner," they said.

The court acknowledged the argument that the media was well within its rights to air critical programmes about a prevailing regime without attracting sedition.

"Merely because the content of the news reported in an unbiased manner is critical of a government or not to its liking, it cannot be said that the news outlet has committed an act of sedition or is inciting hatred. To do so would be directly contrary to the freedom of the Press," ABN, represented by Guntur Pramod Kumar, said in its petition.

TV5 said the "vague" FIR has a chilling effect on free speech in the media. "The attempt of the FIR is to create a chilling effect for news channels in the State, so that every news channel is wary of hosting any content which is critical of the government. By filing a vague FIR and abusing the process of law, the State intends to silence its critics and the media," TV5 said.

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