Justices K M Joseph and Hrishikesh Roy of the Supreme Court have rightly flagged what has become a disquieting routine on the airwaves not only at prime time but almost all the time: Talking heads spewing hate, nutcases passed off as experts as long as they can froth on a Hindu-Muslim issue, each one locked in a race to the bottom, and all this while, anchors provoking, cheering from the studio. Of course, switching off the TV is the best answer to this trash but the bench has a point when it suggests this erodes the social compact, deepens the divide.
Unfortunately, the court’s prescription is problematic. Not only does it overlook the structural forces that enable this hate speech ecosystem, its solution could become more of a problem. Hearing a bunch of petitions that seeks directions from the Court to the government to curb hate speeches on TV channels, the judges have proposed that guidelines along the lines of Vishaka, the SC judgment on sexual harassment at workplace, can be put in place until the state brings in a law to regulate hate content on television. The anguish of the court is understandable but its proposal is fraught. Hate speech has to be read within the purview of Article 19, which safeguards the freedom of speech. In numerous cases, the Supreme Court has upheld the primacy of Article 19 and warned against state overreach (Romesh Thappar vs. The State of Madras,1950 and Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India, 2015 among others). It has also defined what constitutes hate speech. Any overarching law or guidelines to regulate speech stands the risk of violating the letter and spirit of Article 19. In a polarised discourse marked by imbalances of power, who will define hate speech?
The court said the “visual media” in India is the “chief medium of hate speech” and felt that the government was “standing by as a mute witness when all this is happening”. The silence, in many cases, is strategic and deliberate. That’s the nub. At the heart of the problem is the political economy of TV news which thrives on hate speech today more than ever. There is little cost to pay for hate speech, there are few incentives for TV at prime time to be fair and accurate. Indeed, most anchors are paid employees of their channels and they know they can get away with peddling hate because someone in the boardroom has taken a call in its favour. Justice Roy minced few words: “Hate drives TRPs, drives profit.” And when politics fuels, legitimises that hate, judicial interventions are unlikely to work. A new law on hate speech, as the court has suggested, runs the risk of being challenged — and violated — every second given the ceaseless cycle of news and social media. Try enforcing guidelines on what is hate speech or what is not on Twitter or YouTube. Indeed, there is a formidable record of evidence to show how several IPC provisions meant to check hate speech — including Section 153 (A) or 295 (A) — end up being weaponised by the state and its agencies to curb dissent. The court must judge every instance of hate speech in its own context. Nothing is a stronger deterrent against hate speech than those in power speaking up against it, calling it out every time, without fail. Not much will be achieved by lecturing TV channels on the power of love, when they have discovered the profit in hate.