Observing that the entire system might break down if electronic media is given a free hand, the Bombay High Court, on Friday, stressed on the need to have a body to regulate it. It said that the union government must treat media trials as an ‘SOS’ and establish an authority just like the Press Council of India and the Censor Board.
A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish Kulkarni emphasised on the need to strike a balance between the fundamental rights to free speech, fair trial and reputation, as it only takes a single stroke to destroy the image of a person, which is built after years of hard work.
The bench was seized with a bunch of PILs, highlighting the insensitive coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput death case and the ongoing media trial. Appearing for the union government, additional solicitor general Anil Singh argued that, in numerous cases, courts stressed on not having external control over the media and have usually left it on media to exercise self-restraint. The ASG further said that courts must not lay guidelines for media reporting, citing the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Subrata Roy Sahara case.
At this, CJ Datta said, "We wonder why the union government is not bringing in a regulatory body to oversee the electronic media's reportage. There is the Press Council of India for the press and a Censor Board for films, then why not a regulatory body for the electronic media?"
However, the ASG pointed out that no ‘aggrieved person’ in the SSR death case was before the bench to claim media trial.
Irked over the submission, CJ Datta remarked, "You (union) don't seem to be in the mood to ruffle the feathers of the electronic media. Everyone thinks they enjoy an unfettered licence to say whatever they want to."
"There has to be some regulation, else the entire system would break down," CJ Datta warned, adding, "The cherished values of our founding fathers would become irrelevant. What about the preamble? There is no fraternal feeling left."
Further, Justice Kulkarni noted that the media does have the right to free speech. "But it cannot be used to infringe the rights of others. There are certain boundaries for all public offices and even for the media and these should not be crossed," he said.
Justice Kulkarni, indirectly referring to the media trial against Rhea Chakraborty, said, "These are all young persons. Imagine the impact of all this on their lives and reputation."
CJ Datta too made a similar observation saying, "It takes years of hard work to build a reputation, but a single stroke is enough to damage it. Thus, we think there is a serious need to strike a balance between the fundamental rights of free speech, fair trial and reputation."
The judges, however, clarified that they weren't against investigative journalism and only wanted the electronic media to be regulated. "You can say that this is an SOS situation and the government must do something serious about it," Justice Kulkarni remarked.
At this, ASG submitted that the government is seriously working on measures to regulate the electronic media. "We were expecting self-restraint from the media, but now since times have changed, we are seriously thinking about it," the ASG said.
To this, CJ Datta replied, "The entire self-restraint mechanism has failed. And we are in such a situation now. It is for the legislature to look into the issue, why should the judiciary step in?"
The hearing has been adjourned for the union government to spell out the total number of complaints against news channels it has received and what action it has taken till date. The ministry is also ordered to spell out its clear stand on the issue.