In a democracy there cannot be pre-censorship, the Delhi High Court today told the AAP government regarding its policy on display of advertisements on auto rickshaws. “In a democracy it (pre-censorship) should not be done. What is the need for pre-censorship or prohibition of political advertisement? How can you do it? A citizen can be political,” a bench of justices S Ravindra Bhat and Pratibha M Singh said. It said if an advertisement appears to be communal or obscene, then the government needs to take action against the person as per the law in existence.
The Delhi government, meanwhile, told the court that it is coming out with a new policy regarding display of advertisement on public service vehicles (PSVs), including auto rickshaws, and in that the prohibition against political ads would be removed. It, however, said that pre-censorship was required. But the court did not agree. The bench listed the matter for hearing on August 9 giving time to the government to place its policy before the court.
It was hearing a PIL by filed by some auto unions against the then Delhi government’s August 2014 policy on display of advertisements on PSVs, particularly the bar on political ads and the provision allowing pre-censorship. The high court had in 2015 reserved its verdict in the matter, but had taken it up again last year as it wanted to know whether the government on its own would address the issues raised by the petitioners. However, since July 2016, the Delhi government has been seeking more time on each date for placing its revised advertisement policy before the court.
Earlier in September 2014, the high court in an order had raised three questions – whether political advertisements should be allowed on PSVs, need for pre-censorship, and whether ads ought to be allowed only for vehicles having GPS and GPRS systems. In June 2013, the then Delhi government had banned advertisements on PSVs after auto rickshaws started sporting AAP posters in the run-up to Delhi assembly elections. Thereafter, the high court had stayed the ban. In May 2014, the city government had informed the court that it was in the process of finalising the general guidelines for allowing advertisements on PSVs and was awaiting approval of the Lt Governor.
On August 1, 2014, the government had placed before the court its latest guidelines for display of advertisements on PSVs, as per which ads containing political, ethnic, religious or sectarian text will not be permitted. The policy also stated that advertisements cannot be displayed without prior approval of municipal bodies and would be allowed only for vehicles which have installed GPS/GPRS systems. This has been challenged in the PIL.