NEW DELHI: The issue of inadequacy of self-regulatory mechanism by electronic media through the National Broadcasting Association (NBA) came under judicial scrutiny as the Supreme Court on Friday sought suggestions from the Centre and the regulator itself to strengthen its power to regulate members and non-members alike.
The top court, which is hearing alleged communal tinge to some programmes like 'UPSC Jehad' of Sudarshan TV, said that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting simply told the channel to follow the programme code and later did not bother to check as to what has been telecast.
A bench headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud said that the NBA was categorical that Sudarshan TV is not its member so it cannot do anything.
The apex court said there was a need to strengthen the NBA.
"The NBA says they have a committee headed by a retired Supreme Court judge. They can impose a maximum fine of one lakh and this shows how toothless they are. But, NBA is only for members, so Sudarshan News not being a member is not governed by NBA," said the bench, also comprising Justices Indu Malhotra and K M Joseph, which was hearing the plea seeking ban of the programme of the channel.
"How can you have self-regulation when the self-regulatory body (NBA) is telling that everybody is not my member," it asked.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, said that the "subject matter of the present petition namely balancing between the journalist freedom and responsible journalism is a field already occupied either by the statutory provisions made by Parliament or by the judgments of this court".
"If there was a viable method of regulation, we would not have to step out. Your Under Secretary (of I&B Ministry) wrote saying programme code should not be violated and the officials didn't check what happened after broadcast and how programme code was violated," it observed.
While agreeing to file suggestions as asked by the bench, the senior law officer said that another bench headed by CJI S A Bobde is seized of a similar matter related to media coverage of Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi at the start of COVID-19 pandemic.
The bench said it was willing to use its power under Article 142 (which gives extraordinary power to the apex court under the Constitution) to strengthen the NBA so that its power is applicable to non-members.
Recalling the days of Emergency, the bench said that it was against any kind of censorship.
"An injunction order from us is like a nuclear missile and we know it. You (SG), tell us how you will bring in self-regulation. You have to give them (NBA) the teeth," it said.
The law officer then referred to a terror attack and said, "There was a case where a journalist was actually guiding the terrorists in Pathankot."
At the fag end of the hearing, advocate Nisha Bhambani, appearing for NBA, said that it was incorrect to say that the regulator has not acted, saying "also make channels apologise in prime time. We are not toothless."
"Do you watch TV," the bench asked her.
"Yes my Lord," she replied.
"Do you think that you are able to control," asked the bench and she said the situation has improved significantly but many are not our members.
The bench then asked the NBA's lawyer to come up with suggestions on a method to strengthen its hands so that its power enhances.
Senior lawyer Preetesh Kapur, appearing for the Press Council of India, said that it was high time to regulate some really bad reportage and programmes.