A media outlet cannot be muzzled just because it criticizes the government, India’s Supreme Court said on April 5th, as it lifted curbs on a Malayalam news channel, ordered by the centre on “national security” grounds. “National security can’t be raised to deny people their rights… it was raised by the Home Ministry in a cavalier manner in this case,” the Supreme Court said.
The court said that the channel MediaOne’s criticism of the government’s policies and actions cannot be construed as anti-national or anti-establishment, and that an independent press is essential for a vibrant democracy.
Scrapping an order by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting that refused to renew the channel’s broadcast license for want of security clearance, the Supreme Court pulled up the Home Ministry for raising national security claims out of “thin air”.
“National security can’t be raised to deny people their rights… it was raised by the Home Ministry in a cavalier manner in this case,” the court led by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud said, overruling the Kerala High Court which had upheld the centre’s decision.
The judges said the center had failed to show any material facts or evidence to justify its decision to impose the broadcast ban on MediaOne, which was one of the few channels that reported extensively on the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in 2020 and the riots in Delhi that it spawned.
“There is nothing to show terrorist links. National security claims cannot be made on the basis of thin air. It is seen that none of the material is against national security or threatens public order,” the court said.
The court observed that the government cannot be allowed to have a stand that the press must support the government. It said criticism of the government cannot be a ground to revoke the license of a TV channel.
Coming down heavily on the center’s attempt to keep its rationale under wraps, and file them under “sealed cover”, the court said, “Sealed cover proceedings cannot be adopted to avoid the harm caused by public immunity proceedings. We are of the opinion that public immunity proceedings are a less restrictive means to safeguard the public interest.”
“There cannot be a blanket immunity to the government for disclosure of information to the other parties in a proceeding before the court… All investigation reports cannot be termed secret as these affect the rights and liberty of the citizens,” the Supreme Court said.
MediaOne, which had several run-ins with the BJP-led government at the centre, had gone off the air last year on January 31 after its name was removed from the list of permitted channels by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. On March 15 last year, the Supreme Court had put the Kerala High Court order, which had backed the center’s decision, on hold.