SC asks broadcasters to suggest mechanism to bring discipline in news channels

The Supreme Court on Monday said that it wants to bring discipline in news channels while protecting their right to freedom of speech and expression under a stricter self-regulatory mechanism that will give more teeth for regulating programme contents on air.

The Supreme Court said the first tier of regulation is self-regulation by broadcasters and the court wants to strengthen the first tier itself that protects the right to free speech and expression. (File Photo)

A bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud asked the two repersentative bodies of news channels – News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and News Broadcasters Federation (NBF) to make independent suggestions on strengthening the mechanism to deal with errant channels and posted the matter for hearing after four weeks.

The bench, also comprising justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra said, “The first tier of regulation is self-regulation by broadcasters. We want to strengthen the first tier itself that protects their right under Constitution Article 19(1)(a) – right to free speech and expression – and brings discipline.”

The order came on a petition filed by NBA, now called News Broadcasters & Digital Association (NBDA), to appeal against a January 18, 2021 decision of the Bombay high court which refused to accord legal sanctity to the self-regulatory mechanism adopted by the news channel associations to regulate themselves.

The NBA has a regulatory authority called the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), headed by a former Supreme Court judge and functioning for the past 14 years. However, not all channels are part of NBA and for any violation, the authority can impose a penalty of 1 lakh, which the top court found to be ineffective.

On Monday, as the matter came up for hearing, senior advocate Arvind Datar representing NBA informed the court that he needs four weeks more to come out with revised guidelines as talks are still on with the chairperson of NBSA, justice (retd) AK Sikri, and justice (retd) RV Raveendran, who earlier headed it.

As the court was willing to grant time, rival NBF told the court that NBA had no legal standing in the matter as they are not registered with the government. Senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani who appeared for NBF said, “We can’t be bound by any guidelines brought by them. Half the news broadcasters are with us. How can they seek to regulate when they are not registered?”

The Centre represented by solicitor general Tushar Mehta filed its response to the petition last week which said that under the Cable Television Networks (CTN) Amendment Rules introduced in 2021, all self-regulatory bodies of broadcasters must be registered with the government. Mehta said that the NBSA has refused to register while the self-regulatory body of NBF, called the Professional News Broadcasters Standards Authority (PNBSA), is registered and it is the only statutorily recognised self-regulatory body for news channels.

The bench refused to be drawn into the debate on who is recognised among the two rival news channel bodies and said, “We want that the self-regulatory guidelines must be tightened. We don’t want this issue to be lost in the cacophony of rival ideologies.” The court also allowed NBF to submit its guidelines in four weeks and said, “Former judges of this court are looking into this issue. They will do well. We will permit the rival organisations to place their mechanism before us.”

Jethmalani informed the court that the NBF is in the process of formulating regulations and is in talks with former Supreme Court judge – justice (retd) AM Khanwilkar in this regard.

Datar informed the court that for registering under the 2021 CTN Rules, a minimum of 40 news broadcasters are required. He said, “The NBF have roped in cable operators and even claim to have former CJI JS Khehar heading their self-regulatory body but justice Khehar says he has nothing to do with them.”

Mehta said that presently, there is no legal vacuum on regulating news channels and showed from the affidavit filed by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) that there exists a three-tier mechanism. At the first level, there is self-regulation by broadcasters, followed by self-regulation by authorities created by the news broadcasters and finally, oversight mechanism by Centre which talks of an inter-ministerial committee to handle complaints against channels.

Presently, there are 394 news channels which are registered or licensed under the Uplinking and Downlinking Policy Guidelines of the MIB. According to the Centre, NBA or NBDA has 71 out of 394 news channels as its members while NBF has 46 broadcasters.

The Centre informed the court that NBA/NBDA is trying to create “monopolistic” rights in the field of complaints redressal mechanism of news broadcasters, independent of governmental or statutory control. This, the Centre is unwilling to accept. However, the 2021 regulations have provided the space for self-regulation as a private arrangement between channels as the affidavit claimed that the only interest is to ensure channels fall in line with the government’s Programme Code and Advertising Code.

The Bombay high court order under challenge in NBA’s petition claimed that under the statutory framework of regulation prescribed by the Centre, there is no legal sanctity for self-regulatory bodies. However, since this decision, the 2021 amendment to CTN Rules now recognises self-regulatory mechanism for regulating errant channels violating the programme code. However, the 2021 amendment rules were challenged before the Kerala high court. By an order of July 2021, the HC protected broadcaster from “coercive action” for not following the new rules. This order has been challenged by Centre before the Supreme Court and is still pending for consideration.

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