Unregulated digital media can spark hate, terror: Govt to SC

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Digital media is completely unregulated and capable of spreading hate and instigating violence and terror, the central government told the Supreme Court on Monday, adding that if the top court was undertaking an exercise to regulate media, it should start with internet-based news outlets and not mainstream electronic media, which is governed by some checks and balances.

A web-based news portal or YouTube channel can be launched by anyone without any requirement of registration or clearance by the government, and does not face any geographical barriers, factors which the Centre said could harm the “fabric of the nation”.

“Any individual can start his own web-based channel by way of a YouTube channel and the only thing he needs is a desire to start and a smart phone which can be accessed by anyone. There is absolutely no check on the web-based digital media. Apart from spreading venomous hatred, deliberate and intended instigation to not only cause violence but even terrorism it is also capable of indulging in tarnishing the image of individuals and institutions. The said practice is, in fact, rampant,” the affidavit filed by the government said.

The centre also urged the court to leave broader issues relating to media regulation to the parliament and the central government stating “it is a subject matter which must be examined and dealt with by the competent legislature.”

The affidavit was submitted in the context of a case against television (TV) news channel Sudarshan News — which has been at the centre of a controversy after it aired four episodes of a programme, Bindas Bol, on September 11, 12, 13 and 14, relating to the entry of Muslims into the civil services — and the court is now considering the larger issue of regulating television content in the absence of a robust self-regulation mechanism.

“The Centre’s stance is interesting, because it is very well empowered to frame laws to regulate digital media. The affidavit filed by the centre itself acknowledges that. It is, therefore, not clear why Centre has asked the court to regulate digital media,” said Mahesh Menon, who teaches law at the Daksha Fellowship programme.

The Centre’s affidavit said no eligibility criteria or qualifications had been stipulated by the law for starting web-based news organisations and no statutory provisions to regulate or govern them were in place.

The affidavit likened the functioning of web-based media to electronic media, pointing out that digital news outlets use “spectrum” and “internet”, which are public property, much like how electronic media uses “airwaves”.

The Centre’s affidavit highlighted the wider reach of such web-based media in comparison to print and electronic media because of its easy access.

“The print media has a limitation — only those who can read a particular language can have access to a particular newspaper or a magazine. The electronic media also has a limitation, as, by and large, one would be able to access a ‘broadcast’ or a channel only when he has an access to a TV set and subscription through either Direct to Home [DTH] operator or a cable operator,” it said.

Issues concerning security of the nation are also addressed in case of print and electronic media since a TV channel requires a clearance by the ministry of home affairs before it can be registered, while print media is also required to get similar clearances from statutory authorities.

So no further directions from the court are required for regulating electronic or print media, the Centre said. However, if the court considers it necessary to lay down guidelines for media, it should start with web-based media, which is completely unregulated, it suggested.

“By the very nature of its composition, the print and electronic media would rarely cross the line which may need intervention of this Hon’ble Courts frequently. As against that, by its very nature the web-based digital media, by and large, remains unregulated,” the affidavit contended.

The Centre also cautioned that regulating television content could have the undesired impact of media organisations pushing similar content on digital platforms, which are unregulated.

“Any further regulation of electronic and print media by the court either by way of guidelines or providing for any redressal mechanism would incentivise broadcasters to use electronic media less and telecast / publish the same thing on digital platforms which would remain unregulated despite having wider reach without any corresponding responsibility or obligation,” the Centre submitted in its affidavit.

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