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human: SC says human dignity as important as free speech, frowns on TV shows stereotyping a community


New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday said that human dignity was as important as free speech in a democracy and frowned upon TV channels liberally juxtaposing pictures of skull caps, beards and green flags in their shows to stereotype a particular community.

This sets a divisive agenda and alienates members of the community, the court observed, adding that it would also hurt the dignity of the community.

The bench, which has put on hold the telecast of a TV show which alleged a conspiracy to fill up the bureaucracy with Muslims, asked the producers to explain why such incendiary images were mixed up with a supposed investigative report to spread “half-truths”.

“Let the message go to the media that a particular community cannot be targeted. We have to look after the nation for the future… ensure it is cohesive and diverse,” Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who was sitting alongside Justices Indu Malhotra and K.M. Joseph, said.

Contesting the TV channel’s claim that it was an investigative story which showed how students were being funded by suspect organisations, Justice Chandrachud demanded to know how this can be used to paint all candidates as part of an agenda.

“This is the element of concern. Here free speech becomes hatred. You can’t brand every member of a community. You alienate the good members by your divisive agenda.”

The bench though gave one more chance to the producers of the show to do away with the incendiary rhetoric and the symbolism stereotyping a community. “We have a constitutional duty to protect human dignity and that is as important as protecting free speech.”

The bench cited the Emergency-era experience to point out that it did not want to pass any injunction against the show as that would have trickle-down effect – with lower courts using it as a precedent to stifle free speech.

“That is a slippery slope,” Justice Chandrachud observed. “We don’t want to come in the way of journalism. You have to tell us voluntarily what you will do to assuage our feelings,” the bench told the TV channel through senior advocate Shyam Divan.

Justice Malhotra said that the channel needed to take down the flames and the green T-shirts. Justice Joseph was more critical of the show.

“All communities want a slice of the power centre. You have put up a cocktail of various factors but at the bottom you are maligning an entire community,” he observed. “Here you are marginalising the mainstream.”

The bench eventually gave the channel a good faith option to deal with its concerns. It also asked the government to suggest ways and means to improve the self-regulation framework for regulating content on TV. The case will now be heard again on September 21.

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