The Indian Supreme Court yesterday (9th February 1995) directed the government to create an independent autonomous regulatory body for the airwaves (like the US FCC) and end the state monopoly on broadcasting and satellite uplinks.
The judges took an interesting position that the "GREATER IMPACT" OF ELECTRONIC MEDIA and its "wider range of circulation of information" as opposed to the press, CANNOT BE USED TO RESTRICT or deny THE RIGHT TO FREE EXPRESSION. This may have important consequences, for all over the world, including in the US and India, the electronic media is denied freedoms allowed to the press with the excuse that it's somehow different.
The three-judge bench, comprising of Justices PB Sawant, S Mohan and BP Jeevan Reddy, made the ruling after an government appeal against a previous ruling by the Calcutta High Court. The Calcutta High Court had earlier upheld the right to telecast as fundamental, which would theoretically prevent any regulation or censorship whatsoever. The consensual Supreme Court judgement, while denying the government's power of monopoly, upheld its right to subject the electronic media to regulation and censorship.
However, Justice Reddy, in his separate ruling did not mention censorship. He pointed out that the century-old Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, which has been ingeniously extrapolated to support the government's monopoly over electronic media and right to 'licence' data networks, was "wholly inadequate and unsuited for" electronic media, and said that Parliament should enact new laws to govern such media.
Unfortunately the Supreme Court has no powers to legislate, and new laws have a habit (as seen with the Digital Telephony Bill in the US) of increasing, rather than decreasing, government authority. The explicit statement that the electronic media should not be more restricted than the press will, hopefully, prevent that.
The legal battle started with the Doordarshan, the state TV monopoly, objecting to the Cricket Association of Bengal's contract with Trans World International granting the latter worldwide broadcasting rights to a cricket tournament. Doordarshan used the 1885 Act to prevent TWI from uplinking to satellite, till the courts intervened.
Rishab Aiyer Ghosh (email@example.com)
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