‘Clearance to media channels citing national security cannot be in thin air’: SC bats for MediaOne

The apex court said that the state cannot impose unreasonable restrictions on the press as it would have a chilling effect on freedom of press.

BySouth First Desk

Published Apr 05, 2023 | 7:26 PMUpdatedApr 05, 2023 | 7:29 PM

Justice Ujjal Bhuyan Justice Bhatti

Quashing the Centre’s refusal to grant security clearance to Malayalam news channel MediaOne, the Supreme Court on Wednesday, 5 April, said that citing national security concerns as grounds for revoking the licence of a media or TV channel could not be in “thin air” but on substantive material.

Directing the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to consider renewal of the licence in four weeks in the light of its judgement, Chief Justice DY Chandrachud — heading the bench — said that there could not be a blanket immunity to the government to withhold information from other parties before the court.

This was because “all investigation reports cannot be termed secret as these affect the rights and liberty of the citizens”.

Freedom of press

Stating that the state could not impose unreasonable restrictions on the press as it would have a chilling effect on free speech and freedom of the press, the court said that the government could not be allowed to have a stand that the press must support it.

It added that criticism of the government’s decisions and policies could not be grounds to revoke the licence of a media or TV channel.

It set aside the Kerala High Court order upholding the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting order to revoke the licence of MediaOne.

The court said that an independent press was necessary for a robust democracy, and that critical views of the channel against the government policies could not be termed as anti-establishment.

Also read: BRS bans V6, Velugu journalists from party press meet

‘No legitimate grounds to restrict channel’

The apex court turned down the submission relating to an alleged link of shareholders of the company owning MediaOne to the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and said that it was not legitimate grounds to restrict the rights of the channel. The court also noted that there was no material to show such a link.

The top court, on 15 March, 2022, ordered the resumption of broadcast by MediaOne TV channel as it stayed the Centre’s 31 January 2022 order revoking security clearance to the channel and consequent licence to telecast its programmes.

Restoring the broadcast by MediaOne, the court in its 15 March order said, “We accordingly order and direct that pending further orders, the order of the Union government dated 31 January 2022 revoking the security clearance which was granted to the petitioner, Madhyamam Broadcasting Limited, shall remain stayed. The petitioners shall be permitted to continue operating the news and current affairs TV channel called MediaOne on the same basis on which the channel was being operated immediately prior to the revocation of the clearance on 31 January, 2022.”

Also read: How CPI(M) in Kerala displays double standards on free speech

Sealed cover procedure guidelines

Stating that the “sealed cover” procedure was not a legislative exercise, but a creation of the court and not compatible with the court proceedings, the judgement laid down elaborate guidelines for the court to observe while adopting sealed cover procedure in the course of the hearing where the issue of national security has been flagged by the government.

The court said that, in the first instance, the government has to convince the court of its concern for national security and how this concern should override the principle of natural justice.

The court said that if the court embarks to follow the sealed cover procedure, an amicus curiae (friend of court) will be appointed, who before seeing the sealed cover material would have a detailed interaction with the complainant.

Thereafter, they will be under oath not to share with anybody the information made available to them as amicus curiae.

Also read: Adani crisis: SC rejects plea seeking to ban media coverage

Kerala leaders’ reactions

Kerala’s ruling CPI(M)-led LDF, as well as Opposition Congress-led UDF, welcomed the Supreme Court order and said that it gives hope to people fighting to protect democratic principles and the Constitution.

Reacting to the verdict, Leader of Opposition in the Kerala Assembly VD Satheesan said that the apex court’s decision had underlined the stand taken by him earlier that the Centre’s decision to ban the channel was an anti-democratic and anti-constitutional act.

“I wholeheartedly welcome the Supreme Court order,” the Congress leader told reporters.

Referring to the order, which said that critical views of the channel against government policies could not be termed as anti-establishment, he said that criticising the ruling dispensation was not an anti-national act.

“This verdict gives hope to the people who believe in democratic principles,” Satheesan said.

Kerala PWD Minister Mohamed Riyas said that the media played a crucial role in protecting democracy and secularism, and the verdict was important in the context of the ongoing fight to preserve the rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

In a tweet, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said that the judgement robustly affirms freedom of the press in the country.

“I welcome the Supreme Court decision revoking the ban on Malayalam TV channel @MediaOne [sic],” Tharoor said, quoting an excerpt from the court order.

“The judgement robustly affirms press freedom. Shabash!” the Thiruvananthapuram MP added.

MediaOne editor Pramod Raman also posted a tweet saying, “Thanks to all”.