CJI's National Security Ruling Not Relevant Says Kerala HC, Upholds Ban on MediaOne Channel

In the Pegasus matter, the Supreme Court had said "the mere invocation of national security by the State does not render the court a mute spectator".

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New Delhi: Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling last year that national security could not be a “bugbear that the judiciary shies away from”, the Kerala high court on Tuesday accepted the Union home ministry’s denial of security clearance to Malayalam news channel MediaOne and upheld the government’s decision to ban it from broadcasting without giving the channel the chance to examine or challenge the “national security” grounds on which it had been denied clearance.

The court had on January 31 put on hold the Union government’s decision for two days. The government had denied the channel security clearance for renewal of its license, thus banning it from airing. On February 2, the high court’s stay was extended till February 7, when it was extended for another day.

The Kerala Union of Working Journalists (KUWJ), MediaOne editor Pramod Raman and some employees of the channel, represented by senior advocate Jaju Babu, had contended before the high court that hundreds of employees of the channel will be deprived of a livelihood if the Union government’s decision is not set aside.

Justice N. Nagaresh also refused to keep his order in abeyance for a few days to enable the channel to appeal against it, saying since “national security” was involved, he was not inclined to grant any such relief.

The channel’s employees now will have to press an appeal before a division bench of the high court.

“I am not inclined to extend the interim order even for an hour since national security is involved,” the judge said, dismissing the plea of Madhyamam Broadcasting Ltd – which operates MediaOne – challenging the Union government’s January 31 decision.

“Going through the files, I find that the ministry has called for intelligence inputs. Based on the intelligence inputs, the committee of officers has found that security clearance should not be given. The Ministry has decided to accept the finding of the Committee of Officers. There are inputs justifying the denial of security clearance. Therefore I am dismissing the writ petition,” Justice Nagaresh said, according to LiveLaw.

“From the files produced before this Court,” the judge said in his order, “it is discernible that the Committee of Officers took note of the inputs given by the intelligence agencies as regards the petitioner-Company, and found that the inputs are of a serious nature and falls under the security rating parameters. In the circumstances, the Committee of Officers advised not to renew the licence. This Court finds that the recommendations of the Committee of Officers as finally accepted by the MHA, are justified by supporting materials.”

MediaOne is owned by the Madhyamam Broadcasting Limited, many investors of which are members of the Kerala chapter of the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Justice Nagaresh also said that the petitioners’ reliance on the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Pegasus case was “not worthwhile as it was rendered in the context of the right to privacy,” LiveLaw also reported.

In that judgment, the Supreme Court had set up an independent expert committee to investigate the use of Pegasus spyware against journalists, opposition politicians and others, overruling pleas by the government that “national security concerns” required a veil be placed on the question of surveillance.

“National security cannot be the bugbear that the judiciary shies away from, by virtue of its mere mentioning,” the bench had said. “Although this court should be circumspect in encroaching upon the domain of national security, no omnibus prohibition can be called for against judicial review… The mere invocation of national security by the State does not render the court a mute spectator.”

Citing another 2019 Supreme Court case, the Kerala HC judge said that the order which held that “there is no right to a prior hearing when clearance is denied on grounds of national security” has more bearing on this case.

Accordingly, he said that he was not inclined to “interfere with the denial of renewal of the petitioner’s license” and dismissed the writ petition challenging the MHA’s January 31 decision to bar the telecast of MediaOne.

The journalists union and the channel’s employees had also contended that no violation of the permission or any Act or Rules had been alleged by the Union government and therefore, the action taken by the government was “illegal and unconstitutional”.

The Union government, opposing the pleas in court, said that a security clearance, once issued, cannot continue forever.

Assistant Solicitor General S. Manu had told the court the pleas moved by the trade union and the employees were not maintainable as the issue was “between the Central government and the company.”

The Union government had previously also told the court that the MHA denied security clearance to MediaOne “over national security concerns based on intelligence inputs.”

The channel, on the other hand, contended that MHA clearance was only required at the time for fresh permission or license and not at the time of renewal.

It had also contended that, according to the uplinking and downlinking guidelines, security clearance was only required at the time of application for fresh permission and not at the time of renewal of license.

The Union government had earlier issued permission enabling MediaOne channel to uplink and downlink television programmes. This permission, issued on September 30, 2011, was valid for 10 years – till September 29, 2021. The company applied for permission to be renewed for another 10 years in May 2021, Indian Express has reported. On December 29, 2021, the Union home minister denied security clearance to it.

On January 5, 2022, MediaOne was reportedly sent a show-cause notice by the Union government, LiveLaw reported. In it, it asked why the government should not revoke MediaOne’s license, considering “national security and public order.”

In response, the company had requested the opportunity to be heard and noted it was not informed of the reasons why the security clearance was denied in the first place.

However, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting allegedly revoked security clearance without offering an opportunity for a hearing or informing MediaOne of the reasons why it was denying the channel permission to air.

This was not the first time the channel has faced such a bar on its operation. MediaOne, along with another Malayalam News channel, Asianet, were briefly suspended for 48 hours over their coverage of communal violence in Delhi in 2020. The official orders said they covered the violence in a manner that “highlighted the attack on places of worship and siding towards a particular community”.