The Apex Court’s recent judgement on media is exemplary as it gives hope to a demoralized media. The judgement has weaved in important components: national security; the importance of a free press and the futility of sealed covers.
When Chief Justice of India D.Y.Chandrachud said that he was “not here to do miracles”, he did not know that he was silently and quietly doing exactly that.
While listing out his key focus areas at a function, the Chief Justice had said: “I am not here to do miracles. The challenges are high. Perhaps expectations are also great. But this is what I tell myself every day that if this were to be the last day of my life, have I left the World a better place?”
If his recent judgement on the media is anything to go by, Justice Chandrachud certainly has brought about a dramatic change in the existing narrative. Not only has he sounded the death knell of excessive and unreasonable control over the media by the establishment but also signalled the onset of an environment where the shackled media can breathe easy: or at least hope to.
Ruling out any compromises on “judicial responsibility,” Justice Chandrachud said: “I do believe that the Chief Justice of India or the Chief Justice of a High Court is that first and foremost a Chief Justice is a judge. You will be respected or not respected based on your basic function as a judge.” And with this, he not only outlined his primary duty but also sent a strong signal to his fraternity of what is expected of it. The sum total: Stand tall in the face of adversity.
And this is exactly what the Chief Justice of India seems to be doing even while beckoning his counterparts.
It is a strong signal and coming right from the top it is sure to have a spiral effect.
The judgement has weaved in important components: national security; the importance of a free press and the futility of sealed covers.
But the facts first: In a landmark judgement, the Supreme Court held that criticism of government action cannot be called “anti-establishment” and national security claims can’t be “made out of thin air” to deny citizens remedies provided under the law.
The judgement also underlined the principles of fair speech and media freedom versus the state’s red flagging the bogey of national security to checkmate citizens: “The press has a duty to speak truth to power, and present citizens with hard facts enabling them to make choices that propel democracy in the right direction. The restriction on the freedom of the press compels citizens to think along the same tangent. A homogenised view on issues that range from socio-economic polity to political ideologies would pose grave dangers to democracy.”
The Court also said that an independent press “shines a light on the functioning of the State”.
The Court was hearing a matter concerning a ban on a television channel that went off the air in January 2022. The government had then refused to renew its licence, citing security concerns.
In February 2022, the Kerala High Court upheld the government order after the Centre submitted a sealed envelope detailing its stand to the division bench. But in March 2022, while admitting the appeal by Madhyamam Broadcasting Ltd (MBL), the channel’s owner, the top court temporarily lifted the ban.
Quashing the order, the apex court directed the central government to grant security clearance and other necessary approvals to Media One within four weeks.
The Supreme Court set aside the January 31, 2022, order of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting which cited the denial of security clearance by the Ministry of Home Affairs as the reason for refusing to renew the channel’s licence. It is in this context that the Bench, chaired by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, underlined the need for national security claims to be backed by evidence.
More importantly, it pulled up the Centre for denying the security clearance without there being any substantial ground to justify the ban: “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,” the top court said.
It also turned down the Centre’s argument on “secrecy of IB reports” on grounds that reports by investigative agencies impact decisions on the life, liberty, and profession of individuals and hence to give these reports absolute immunity from disclosure is antithetical to a transparent and accountable system.
As for the “sealed cover” procedure, the Bench observed that the procedure followed by the single judge and the division bench have necessarily left the appellants without the right to writ remedies which have been described as the “heart and soul of the Constitution” adding that this left the appellants “in a maze where they are attempting strenuously to fight in the dark.”
The judgement is truly path-breaking, particularly because it comes at a time when a free press is a thing of the past; national security is used as a pretext to curb criticism of the government and the establishment is running amuck by either throwing critics in jail or linking them with anti-national activities.
In the present case too, Media One was denied a security clearance for its alleged links with the Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind or the JEI-H.
On this, the Court said that it was precarious for the State to contend that the links with the organisation would affect the “sovereignty and integrity of the nation, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order”. It said that the allegation is “fallacious”.
Judgements such as these are exemplary because they give hope to a demoralized media that all is not lost. A government may run amuck but there are saner voices that would step in and save institutions that the government is hell bent on destroying. More importantly, there are still some who stand tall in the current set-up of pigmies.