The Bombay high court on Monday asked why the Union government could not ratify and enforce guidelines of private bodies such as the the News Broadcasters Standards Authority (NBSA) to regulate the content broadcast by TV news channels.
A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice G S Kulkarni said since the NBSA had detailed code of ethics and guidelines that all member channels are expected to adhere to, the same could be given some teeth and made enforceable by the government.
"Can we not make a request to the government, that there are guidelines in place, so that those guidelines get a stamp and can be enforced?" the bench asked.
The question came when senior counsel Arvind Datar and advocate Neela Gokhale, representing the NBSA, told HC that the private body had taken action on several complaints received against news channels.
The advocates said that in the past, the NBSA had imposed the maximum fine of Rs 1 lakh on some news channels for content that breached its guidelines.
While all other channels had apologised and paid the fine, the Republic TV had refused to do so, Datar said.
"The Republic TV then walked out of the National Broadcasters Association (NBA) and formed its own association, the National Broadcasters Federation," Gokhale said.
Datar said taking a cue from previous SC judgments, the NBSA also supported a mechanism of self-regulation for news broadcasters.
The NBSA is an independent body set up by the NBA to consider and adjudicate upon complaints about broadcasts.
On Datar's arguments on self-regulation and the Republic TV incident, the bench asked what happened if the self-regulatory mechanisms failed and a channel refused to adhere to the guidelines.
"When doctors are admitted to a PG course at concessional rates, they have to serve in rural areas. If they cannot fulfil that condition, then the doctors will not be given their certificate. If they refuse the condition, then they are fined heftily," it said.
"Why can't you have guidelines like that? This should be the teeth of guidelines," the court said.
Datar said in case a channel refused to adhere to the NBSA guidelines or if it refused to pay the fine, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) could step in and take action.
He also said that if self-regulation failed then the court, too, had ample power to step in.
Datar said the NBSA also felt its guidelines should be made mandatory and their violation should be taken as a ground for granting injunction (against the offending channel).
"Otherwise there is no deterrence," he said.
However, the NBSA was not in favour of any new statutory body to regulate the media, he said.
"We do not want a statutory body over the existing system of self-regulation. The fastest relief is the court's relief. Courts have considered several cases in the past too," Datar said.
"I (news broadcasters) do not want the statutory remedy to take away my remedy with the court. I am safer with the court than with a statutory body," he said.
The court has been conducting the final hearing on a bunch of public interest litigations seeking that the press, particularly TV news channels, be restrained in their reportage on the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
The pleas, filed by activists, retired police officers and some private citizens, also opposed the 'media trial' conducted in the case by the press.
The HC will continue the hearing on Wednesday.
It directed Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh to inform the court on the next hearing why the I&B ministry was forwarding the complaints it received to the NBSA?
"Have there been instances where channels have been banned by the ministry?" it asked.