The statement said the signatories were “extremely disappointed” by the decisions of the single judge bench “which refused to overturn the cancellation of MediaOne News’s licence by the MIB & MHA and protect the Fundamental Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression.” It added that the court’s decision “was based on a ‘sealed cover’ envelope provided by the MHA, the contents of which were not shared” with MediaOne.
Signatories to the statement include Digivijaya Singh (Congress),(TMC), Kanimozhi (DMK), Manoj Kumar Jha (RJD), Priyanka Chaturvedi ( ), Elamaram Kareem and Binoy Viswam (both from the CPI), E T Mohammed Basheer (IUML), N K Premachandran (RSP), Badruddin Ajmal (AIUDF) and John Brittas (CPM).
The statement was also signed by Supreme Court lawyers Prashant Bhushan and Colin Gonsalves, former Bombay High Court judge B G Kolse Patil, journalists, writers, social activists and leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind.
They said it “goes against the basic principles of natural justice, which mandate that the material evidence in any adjudication process, and especially in a matter concerning Fundamental Rights, must be shared with both parties to the dispute” and said that the court had “failed in its bounden duty as a constitutional court by not providing the reasons behind its judgment”, instead reiterating the MHA’s stand.
They expressed hope that “subsequent judicial proceedings will protect the channel’s fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression and restore” its licence. “Freedom of the press is essential to the health of any democracy, and the central government must not be allowed to abuse its powers to curb critical voices and television news channels that dare to question the official narrative.”
At a press conference in Delhi, Bhushan said, “We all know that the freedom of press in India is under severe threat under this government”, and during its tenure “India has slipped down” on the media freedom index “disastrously”.
“This is because of the relentless assault on independent media by the government. They have tried to subvert the independence of the media in many ways.” He said that the government is doing this through inducements, for channels sympathetic towards them, and are willing as an “arm of government propaganda”.
“Those media organisations which refused to come under control, which refused to be a propaganda arm of the government are then threatened with various agencies like the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate, the Income Tax department, and sometimes even by the NIA,” he added.
Those “which still are not brought under control”, he said, are then managed through the means used against MediaOne, by declining their security clearance and asking them to shut down.
The “growing spectre of what is called sealed cover jurisprudence”, Bhushan said, is a “gross violation of the principles of natural justice” which “needs to be completely uprooted from the legal systems of this country.”
He mentioned that the government did not even inform MediaOne as to why it was denied security clearance. “What is even more unfortunate is, that when the channel goes to the High Court, and says this is violation of freedom of speech, they are told that no we cannot even tell you” why the clearance was denied.
Bhushan said that if “on this vague premise the government can shut down a media organisation, then that’s the end of press freedom and freedom of speech in this country.” He said this should not be allowed to pass muster, and the higher courts should put a stop to this.
He called the government’s move a “trial balloon”. “We are seeing these new precedents everyday… This is a trial balloon floated by the government. If this is allowed to pass muster by the court, that’s the end of media freedom in this country.”
He pointed out that national security “cannot become the bugbear”, forcing the courts to not intervene.
Veteran journalist N Ram, who is also a signatory to the release, also raised concerns about the “sealed cover jurisprudence” during the press conference. He said blocking the licence is not just about the freedom to broadcast. “It involves interconnected rights” including media freedom, freedom of speech and expression, freedom to disseminate and consume information” all of which fall within the “framework of speech and expression”. He said the court’s judgment was “very unfortunate” and said it was “very disappointing” but “not surprising”.
“That is the trend, freedoms fall by the wayside whenever national security is invoked. It more often than not gets a free pass.” He also expressed concerns about the “targeted attack on minorities, in particular Muslim minorities” by the Centre and some states. “The attempt is to send messages to create fear, apprehensions, doubts about the role of minorities”.
After the single judge bench’s order last week, MediaOne has approached a division bench in the Kerala High Court, which is expected to issue its order this week.