19 September 2023, Mumbai: The Supreme Court is taking steps to reinforce the self-regulatory mechanism for news channels, aiming to maintain discipline while preserving freedom of speech and expression. In response to a petition filed by the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), the court has asked both the NBA and the rival News Broadcasters Federation (NBF) to propose suggestions for strengthening this mechanism. This move comes after the court found the existing self-regulatory authority, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), to be ineffective. The court has also allowed the NBF to submit its guidelines.
Aiming for Discipline and Freedom
The Supreme Court is determined to strike a balance between discipline and the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. It wants to enhance the self-regulatory framework to ensure that news channels adhere to established standards while respecting their constitutional right under Article 19(1)(a) – the right to free speech and expression.
The Challenge and the Response
The legal journey began with a petition by the NBA, now known as the News Broadcasters & Digital Association (NBDA), appealing against a Bombay High Court decision from January 18, 2021. The high court had refused to grant legal recognition to the self-regulatory mechanism employed by news channel associations to regulate themselves. The NBA operates the NBSA, which has been in existence for 14 years. However, not all channels are part of the NBA, and the NBSA can only impose a fine of ₹1 lakh for violations, a penalty that the Supreme Court deemed ineffective.
In response to the Supreme Court’s move, the NBA has requested four more weeks to revise its guidelines. Talks are ongoing with former Supreme Court judges Justice (Retd.) AK Sikri and Justice (Retd.) RV Raveendran, both of whom have previously chaired the NBSA. Meanwhile, the NBF, which also possesses a self-regulatory body known as the Professional News Broadcasters Standards Authority (PNBSA), has argued that the NBA lacks legal standing because it is not registered with the government. This leads to questions about its authority to regulate when it lacks official registration.
The government, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, has weighed in on the matter. It states that, as of 2021, all self-regulatory bodies of broadcasters must be registered with the government under the Cable Television Networks (CTN) Amendment Rules. While the NBSA has refused to register, the PNBSA is registered and is the only self-regulatory body for news channels recognized by statute.
A Path Forward
The Supreme Court has declined to wade into the debate over which of the two rival news channel bodies is recognized. Instead, it emphasizes the need to enhance self-regulatory guidelines, avoiding the issue of conflicting ideologies. It has permitted the rival organizations to present their mechanisms. The NBF is currently formu lating regulations and engaging in discussions with former Supreme Court judge Justice (Retd.) AM Khanwilkar regarding the matter.
Programme Code and Advertising Code
The Supreme Court’s objective is clear: it wants to establish stricter self-regulation guidelines that strike a balance between discipline and freedom of speech and expression. As the legal process unfolds, the focus remains on ensuring that news channels adhere to the government’s Programme Code and Advertising Code while preserving their constitutional rights.
By Yashika Desai