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Supreme Court’s ‘Media One’ Order A Step Towards Open Justice

The National Alliance of Journalists, the Delhi Union of Journalists and the Andhra Pradesh Working Journalists’ Federation welcome the Supreme Court’s ruling revoking the Union Government’s ban on the Malayalam news channel Media One but note with concern the caveats on the ‘sealed cover’ procedure.

The channel’s application for renewal of its ten year old license was refused on January 31, 2022 by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, citing objections by the Home Ministry. The channel then went off the air for two months. The Kerala Union of Working Journalists, the Editor of Media One and some channel employees had moved the Kerala High Court against this, citing loss of jobs as a concern, besides the issue of press freedom.  

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Unfortunately the Kerala High Court’s Division Bench upheld the Centre’s arguments that the channel was a threat to national security, accepting arguments in a ‘sealed cover’ from the Home Ministry. However, on March 15, 2022 the Supreme Court stayed the High Court order and allowed the channel to resume operations. 

On April 5, 2023, in a historic judgement, the Supreme Court has upheld the freedom of the press and the right to be critical of the government. The Court has said: “The denial of security clearance to operate a news channel is a restriction on the freedom of the press, and such restriction is constitutionally permissible only on the grounds stipulated in Article 19(2) of the Constitution. An independent press is vital for the robust functioning of a democratic republic. Its role in a democratic society is crucial, for it shines a light on the functioning of the State. “The press has a duty to speak truth to power and present citizens with hard facts enabling them to make choices that propel democracy in the right direction.”

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The Court has critiqued the ‘sealed cover’ procedure adopted by the government and accepted by the High Court. It said “…national security claims cannot be made out of thin air. There must be material backing such inference…” The Court has pointed out that the alleged links between the channel’s promoters and the Jamaat e Islami Hind are no reason for a ban, “…when JEIH is not a banned organization, it will be rather precarious for the state to contend that links with the organization would affect the sovereignty and integrity of the nation, the security of the state….”

Media One had extensively covered the CAA protests and the Delhi riots and along with Asianet News had been taken off air for 48 hours in March 2020. In this context, the DUJ_NAJ and APWJF welcome the Court’s broad observation that, “The restriction on the freedom of the press compels citizens to think along the same tangent. A homogenised view on issues that range from socioeconomic polity to political ideologies would pose grave dangers to democracy.”  

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The NAJ-DUJ note that the state’s agencies frequently use the ‘sealed cover’ procedure, particularly in UAPA cases. This denies the accused access to the reasons why they have been charged, making it extremely difficult to put up a defence, thus effectively denying them justice. The Supreme Court’s critique of this procedure is therefore welcome. However, the Court has balanced its observations by suggesting that an amicus curiae be appointed in such cases who will have access to the material in the sealed cover, rather than the material being directly provided to the accused. How this will affect cases in the future remains to be seen. However, overall the judgementis a step forward in the legal struggle for open justice, say the NAJ-DUJ and APWJF.

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