More restrictions on the media will make things worse; but bad TV is also encouraged by the audience loving it
That said, the government did well to say that SC would do well to just look at the current petition and not come up with rules/guidelines that apply to all media.
There can be little doubt that Sudarshan TV’s UPSC Jihad was, to use the Supreme Court’s (SC) words, a “rabid” and “insidious” attempt to vilify the Muslim community. While stopping fake news from being propagated is difficult at the best of times—more so when this is on social media and seems to travel even faster than light—what is unfortunate is that, in this particular case, both the government and the Supreme Court had the option of stepping in earlier. Prior restraint is a delicate line to tread since it is open to abuse—almost anyone can then block any news/views from being published—but in this case, both the government and the SC had been petitioned on the basis of the trailers of the show on how Muslims were “infiltrating government service”; at that time, SC said, “at this stage, we have desisted from imposing a pre-broadcast interlocutory injunction on the basis of an unverified transcript of a forty-nine second clip … The Court has to be circumspect in imposing a prior restraint on publication or the airing of views”. If the ‘unverified transcript’ was the stumbling block, surely Sudarshan TV could have been asked to provide a verified transcript?
That both SC and the government failed to step in at the right time is doubly unfortunate since it is not just the Muslim community that is being vilified, it is the entire process of the UPSC exams and recruitment that is being pilloried. After all, if Muslims are ‘infiltrating’ the UPSC, this suggests the system is compromised. If the choice of Urdu in the literature portion of the examination is one of the routes through which Muslims managed to ‘infiltrate’ the UPSC—the presumption here is that those marking the questions would also be Muslims and so award higher marks—then surely this is a charge that would stick when it came to other languages?
That said, the government did well to say that SC would do well to just look at the current petition and not come up with rules/guidelines that apply to all media. It is, of course, difficult to understand why this was followed up with “if this Hon’ble Court considers it appropriate to undertake the said exercise, there is no justification to confine this exercise only to mainstream electronic media … digital media has faster reach from wider range of viewership”. While, as the government said, there are enough rules and judicial pronouncements on the electronic and print media, the real issue is enforcing them. Other TV channels may not be vilifying Muslims, but several of them—night after night—vilify individuals by declaring them guilty long before the law does; and this is done with supposed exclusive reports from investigating agencies. The audience is to be blamed since the TRPs show they love this, but if the government fails to do anything about the fake news on TV, its fulminations against fake news on social media look less credible. Coming up with standards—or an expert panel on this—for the electronic media, as SC seems to be veering towards, is not going to help as it is the media’s job to regulate itself; such standards may end up becoming tools of censorship. And why not try other remedies? In the Sudarshan TV case, the UPSC should take action against the channel for scurrilous reporting, or hold a press conference to explain why the news is completely unfounded. Indeed, if civil society is genuinely worried about scurrilous reporting on TV, it would put pressure on leading brands to withdraw advertising, just has happened with Facebook on the hate speech on its platform that it did little to curb.