HC’s whip to I&B ministry: Do not use advisory against news channels

On October 21, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had issued an advisory which said that putting the prime minister’s speeches on national occasions in “artificial competition” with anyone was not appropriate.

The Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court on Tuesday directed the union information and broadcasting ministry not to use its Oct 21 order against news channels that said the prime minister should not be compared to any other political leader.

A bench of Chief Justice Dhananjay Yashwant Chandrachud and Justice Rituraj Awasthi said the advisory whereby electronic news channels were told that their licences will be cancelled in case they compare the prime minister to any other political leader should be used only for compliance of rules and regulations and not beyond.

In a public-interest litigation (PIL), social activist Nutan Thakur had sought the quashing of the advisory.

The petition said the ministry issued the advisory threatening penal provision in Section 20 of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, because many news channels compared Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi over their Independence Day speeches.

The ministry had found the comparison “indecent” and “bad in taste”.

Calling the advisory merely a dictatorial step to curb the independence of the media, Thakur had prayed for its immediate quashing in larger public interest.

On October 21, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had issued an advisory which said that putting the prime minister’s speeches on national occasions in “artificial competition” with anyone was not appropriate.

The advisory had said that certain TV channels had attempted to denigrate the office of the prime minister by constantly trying to compare his Independence Day speech with that of other political leaders and said that it was “sensational, against all norms of ethical journalism”.

The advisory had asserted that the prime minister spoke from the ramparts of the Red Fort as the prime minister of the country, and not as the representative of a political party, and reminded the channels that they were bound to follow programme and advertising codes under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995.

The advisory asked TV news channels to follow the provisions of the code scrupulously and maintain the solemnity of national occasions while carrying speeches of the prime minister and the president, and cautioned that further violations would attract penal provisions under relevant rules and terms of uplinking and downlinking.

The move drew major flak from the opposition. “This is an unconstitutional censorship order prompted by Modi-phobia,” BJP’s leader Arun Jaitley had said.

“The effect of this order is that on days the prime minister addresses the nation, no other speech should be telecast. The chief ministers of the states must be boycotted. Any comment of an opposition leader should be censored. If this principle is accepted it may even extend to a finance minister’s budget speech or a defence minister’s comment on security,” he had said.

Jaitely, who is Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, had added that censorship had no place in a democracy, and cannot be enforced directly or indirectly.

“Comment and criticism is a way of life. Even judgments of the highest court can be criticised. All individuals in public life must be subjected to scrutiny. We must be criticised when we go wrong. Criticism is a part of public accountability,” he had said.

“No action under the cable law can be taken, in case of the legitimate exercise of the freedom of speech,” he said, citing Article 19 (2) of the constitution, that provides conditions under which the right to free speech can be restricted.

“If the prime minister speaks for the nation on a national day, so do chief ministers; so does the opposition,” he had countered.

The move came exactly at the same time when Congress party was suffering at the hands of Modi due to his continuous PM and government bashing.

It should be noted that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had sought to punch holes in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Independence Day speech. The speech by Modi, who has been named prime minister candidate of the BJP, also featured on several TV news channels.

-with inputs from IANS

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