'National Security Used to Deny Rights': With Scathing Order, SC Quashes Govt's Ban on MediaOne

'The State is using the plea of national security to deny the rights of the citizens. This is incompatible with the rule of law...The mere involvement of issues relating to national security will not allow the State to not act fairly.'

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on April 5, Wednesday, quashed the Union government’s ban on the telecast of Malayalam-language news channel MediaOne, criticising the high court’s verdict upholding the ban and the government’s invocation of ‘national security’ to enforce it.

LiveLaw has reported that an apex court bench of Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice Hima Kohli said, “There is no explanation on what weighed with the high court in holding the decision is valid.”

In 2022, the popular Kerala news channel went off the air after its licence was revoked by the Union government, citing “security concerns.” MediaOne is owned by the Madhyamam Broadcasting Limited, many of the investors of which are reportedly members of the Kerala chapter of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court said such a link, which itself does not have material proof, cannot be legitimate grounds to deny the channel a licence.

In upholding the ban, a bench of Justice N. Nagaresh of the Kerala high court accepted the Union home ministry’s denial of security clearance despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Pegasus case that national security could not be a “bugbear that the judiciary shies away from”.

In March last year, the Supreme Court had allowed the channel to telecast in an interim order.

MediaOne had filed a special leave petition with the apex court, in response to which the Supreme Court has directed the Union home ministry to issue the renewal licence to the channel in four weeks.

LiveLaw has reported that the Supreme Court bench came down heavily on the Union government’s non-disclosure of reasons for denial of security clearance. It also held that the disclosure only to the court – and not the affected channel – in a sealed cover, is in violation of the principles of natural justice and the right to fair proceedings, leaving the company “in the dark to fight out”.

Speaking to The Wire in the aftermath of the ban, MediaOne editor and senior journalist Pramod Raman had said that the channel has not received any communication at all on why it was being taken off air.

“We don’t know anything more about this than you do. The most recent information regarding the ban came from the high court verdict. We were first sent a show cause notice. But this notice did not say what cause we needed to show,” Raman had said.

Once again, the Supreme Court delivered a scathing critique of the government’s use of ‘national security’ as a motivation to deny rights.

“The State is using the plea of national security to deny the rights of the citizens. This is incompatible with the rule of law…The mere involvement of issues relating to national security will not allow the State to not act fairly…The sealed cover procedure adopted has rendered the rights of the petitioner as a dry parchment and the procedural guarantees to the petitioners have been rendered otiose,” the bench said, according to LiveLaw‘s report.

Not for the first time, the Supreme Court added a critique of sealed covers too.

“Sealed cover procedure cannot be introduced to cover harms that cannot be remedies by public immunity proceedings…Principles of natural justice may be excluded when interests of national security outweighs. But a blanket immunity from disclosure cannot be granted…Sealed cover procedure infringe the principles of natural justice and open justice,” it said.

The top court also upheld press freedom, going against the Ministry of Home Affairs’ justification that reports on the channel on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), along with its apparent criticism of judiciary, and the government were proof that it is “anti-establishment.”

“Press has a duty to speak truth to power and inform citizens about hard facts. The critical views of the channel against the govt policies cannot be termed as anti-establishment. This view presumes that press should always support the government. An independent press is necessary for a robust democracy. The criticism of the policies of the govt cannot be stretched to mean any of the grounds under Article 19(2) which can restrict free speech,” it said.

The bench asserted that non-renewal of license for a channel is a restriction on the right to freedom of speech and can be imposed only on grounds under Article 19(2).