Hate speeches are a 'complete menace', the Supreme Court observed on Friday and rued the lack of regulatory control on TV news content, saying it wants 'free and balanced press in India'.
The top court said nowadays everything is driven by TRP (television rating point) and channels are competing with each other and creating a division in society.
It wondered why can't a TV news anchor, if they become a part of the problem of propagating hate speech, be taken off air.
It said unlike for print media, there is no Press Council of India for news channels, and observed, 'We want free speech, but at what cost'.
A bench of Justices K M Joseph and B V Nagarathna, which was hearing a batch of petitions seeking a curb on hate speech incidents across the country and action against the culprits, said, "Hate speech has become a complete menace. It has to stop."
Expressing concern over media trial, the bench pointed to the recent incident of a man allegedly urinating on an Air India flight, saying, "He was called names. Media people should understand he is still under trial and he should not be denigrated. Everyone has dignity."
Justice Joseph said TV channels are competing with each other as news coverage is TRP-driven.
"They sensationalise everything and create divisions in society because of the visual element. Unlike the newspaper, the visual medium can influence you much more and unfortunately, the audience is not mature enough to see these kind of content," he said.
He said many a time during live debates the anchors became part of the problem as they either mute the voice of the person sitting in a panel or don't allow them to present a counter view.
Justice Nagarathna said if TV channels are found to be violating the programme code by indulging in propagation of hate speech, action can be taken against their management.
"We want free and balanced press in India," she said.
The counsel representing the News Broadcasters Association claimed that thousands of complaints have been received in the past year and action taken against the channels.
"In a live programme, the key to fairness of the programme is held by the anchor. If the anchor is not fair, he would not allow the counter view to come by either muting the speaker or by not asking the question to the other side. This is an insignia of bias.
"How many times action has been taken against the anchor? Media people must learn that they are occupying positions of great strength and they have an impact on society. They cannot be part of the problem and speak their mind whichever way they want," the bench said.
Justice Joseph said if action is taken against the news anchor or their management, all will fall in line.
The court told Additional Solicitor General K M Nataraj, appearing for the Centre, that freedom of speech and expression is a very important and delicate thing and the government has to take some action without actually interfering with it.
Nataraj said the Centre is aware of the problem and is contemplating bringing amendments in the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) to deal with the problem of hate speeches.
Justice Nagarathna, who recently gave a dissenting verdict on speeches made by public functionaries where she dealt with the issue of hate speech said, "Ultimately, it all comes down to the content of the speech. Freedom of speech and expression comes with great responsibility."
Nataraj agreed with the view of the bench and said State cannot subscribe to hate crime or hate speech, and these cannot be ascribed to any particular religion.
The bench told him the government has to act against broadcasts that impact the nation and affect fraternity and harmony carefully within the domain of law with some out of the box solution.
Justice Nagarathna said, "TV has been now in India for decades but still it has no regulations and has become free for all. You don't have something like the Press Council of India for channels like newspapers."
The bench recalled a recent incident where a Delhi police officer was stabbed by a snatcher in front of a crowd but no one intervened, and said, "Several people were there but no one wants to stick their neck out."
Deputy Advocate General of Uttarakhand Jatinder Kumar Sethi said several cases of hate speech were registered including 23 that were lodged by police suo motu (on its own) as per the last order of the court.
Additional Advocate General Garima Prashad, who represented Uttar Pradesh, said more than 500 such cases have been filed, including 160 suo motu cases, where action has been taken and people have been arrested.
On October 21 last year, the apex court had asked Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Delhi to crack down hard on those making hate speeches, observing, 'Where have we reached in the name of religion, what have we reduced religion to is tragic'.
Holding that the Constitution of India envisages a secular nation, the court had directed the three states to promptly register criminal cases against the offenders without waiting for a complaint to be filed.
The apex court warned any delay on the part of the administration in taking action on this 'very serious issue' will invite the court's contempt.