While lifting the ban on Malayalam language TV news channel MediaOne, the Supreme Court observed that plea of ‘national security’ and anti-establishment reports broadcast by a channel can’t be the legitimate ground for refusing to renew the broadcast license. The court said that it was the duty of the press to speak the truth and an independent press is a must for a democratic republic. The top court said that MediaOne’s link with Jamaat-e-Islami Hind can also not be a legitimate ground to restrict the rights of the channel.
NEW DELHI—In an important development with regard to press freedom that has come under increasing attack from the establishment in the last few years, the Supreme Court on Wednesday lifted the ban the Malayalam language TV news channel – MediaOne – saying the state has used the ‘national security’ plea to deny citizens’ rights.
It asked the government to renew the license of the channel within four weeks.
The order was passed by a two-judge bench comprising Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud and Justice Hima Kohli on a petition filed by Madhyamam Broadcasting Limited (MBL) that runs the news channel.
The company had challenged a Kerala High Court order that had upheld the decision of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting refusing to renew the broadcasting license of the channel for want of security clearance by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Ministry had refused to renew the license on January 31, 2022.
The apex court strongly criticized the Kerala High Court for upholding the Centre’s decision based on sealed cover documents submitted by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Non-disclosure of sealed cover content to MediaOne denied its right to seek remedies
Expressing surprise over the High Court not disclosing the reasons for the denial of security clearance by the Home Ministry, the bench stated that the non-disclosure of reasons for the denial of security clearance, which is the sole ground for denying the permission to renew the license, and the disclosure of the relevant material only to the court in a sealed cover, has denied the appellant’s right to seek remedies.
State Cannot deny citizens their rights merely on the plea of national security
The judgment authored by CJI Chandrachud said that the state cannot deny the citizens their rights merely by raising the issue of national security. The judgment also observed that absolute immunity cannot be granted to the reports of agencies like the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The judgment said that the affidavit filed by the Home Ministry before the Kerala high court and the supreme court has not explained how the non-disclosure would affect national security.
“The state is using national security as a tool to deny citizens remedies that are provided under the law. This is not compatible with the rule of law,” remarked CJI Chandrachud in the judgment.
Anti-establishment report cannot be the ground for refusal of broadcast license renewal
The apex court said that it was not justifiable to refuse the renewal of the broadcast license merely on the ground that the new channel had telecast reports on the Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizenship and criticism of state and judiciary that was anti-establishment.
Duty of the Press to speak the truth
The top court said that it was the duty of the Press to speak truth. “An Independent Press is vital for the robust functioning of a democratic republic. Its role in a democratic society is crucial, for its shines light on the functioning of the State. The Press has a duty to speak the truth and present citizens with hard facts, enabling them to make choices that prepare democracy in the right direction,” the court stressed.
The apex court also said that the news channel that criticised the policies of the government could not be termed anti-establishment. The court observed that the use of such terminologies suggests the press must support the establishment. It said that the decision of the IB Ministry to refuse the renewal of the broadcast license based on the views of the news channel “produce a chilling effect on free speech and in particular on press freedom.”
MediaOne’s link with Jamaat-e-Islami Hind cannot be a ground to restrict the rights of the channel
It further said the alleged link of channel’s shareholders to Jamaat-e-Islami Hind is not a legitimate ground to restrict the rights of the channel. In any event, there is no material to show such a link, it said. Also, when JeIH is not a banned organization, it cannot be contended that the links with the organization would affect the sovereignty and integrity of the nation the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order.
“The only piece of evidence in the file to link MBL to JeIH is the alleged investment in the shares of MBL. In support of this, IB has submitted a list of shareholders. However, there is no evidence on record linking them to JeIH. Thus, the allegation that MBL is linked to JeIH is fallacious. Firstly, because JeIH is not a banned organization and there is no material to conclude that the investment by JEIH sympathisers would affect India’s security. And secondly, even if it is accepted that the investment by JEIH sympathizers would affect the security of the state, there is no material to prove that the shareholders are sympathisers of JeIH. In view of the discussion above, the purpose of denying security clearance does not have a legitimate goal or a proper purpose,” the judgment said.