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Anchor them away from hate speech

In a recent hearing on a clutch of petitions, the Supreme Court has underlined the critical role of an anchor in stopping hate speech during television debates

Tarun Deep Dutt

Last week, the Supreme Court of India expressed concern over rising cases of hate speech in the country and sharply criticised television news channels for regularly hosting discussions that allow for the expression of hatred. The bench of Justices K.M. Joseph and Hrishikesh Roy said that it is the (television) anchor’s responsibility to stop hate speech from occurring during TV discussions, noting the importance of the anchor’s position during TV debates. The bench said: “The anchor’s function is crucial. Either on mainstream television or on social media, hate speech is a problem. Most social media platforms are uncontrolled. When it comes to mainstream television channels, where we still have power, the job of the anchor is crucial because it is the anchor’s responsibility to instantly ensure that he doesn’t let someone who is spewing hate speech to continue. Unfortunately, when someone wants to speak, at times they are silenced, given little time, or even treated rudely.”

The apex court said that while television hosts permit certain guests to make venomous remarks, they prevent the opposite side from airing its opposing viewpoints by muting their microphones. “There should be free debate but you should also know where to draw the line because there is a huge influence particularly with the visual media… they produce a very serious effect on your brain. The freedom is (also) for the listener. The freedom of speech is actually for the benefit of the listener. How would the listener ever make up his mind after listening to a debate where it is just a babble of voice, you cannot even make out what is happening,” the bench observed.

The bench was hearing a clutch of eleven writ petitions seeking directions to regulate hate speech. The petitions include those against the ‘UPSC Jihad’ show aired by Sudarshan News TV and against the speeches made at Dharam Sansad meetings.

As the cases of hate speech rise in India, the country’s legal system grapples with the lack of a proper definition of the term and specific laws to deal with it. The Law Commission of India made an attempt to plug this loophole in its 267th report on hate speech submitted to the Union Government on March 23, 2017. The commission defined hate speech as “an incitement to hatred primarily against a group of persons defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief and the like (sections 153A, 295A read with section 298 IPC)”.

Thus, hate speech is any word written or spoken, signs, visible representations within the hearing or sight of a person with the intention to cause fear or alarm, or incitement to violence.

Along with defining hate speech, the Law Commission of India also recommended insertion of two new sections in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to deal with it – 153C to prohibit incitement to hatred, and 505A to punish incidents of causing fear, alarm, or provocation of violence in certain cases. The law commission was of considered opinion that the new provisions in the IPC were required to be incorporated to address the issues of hate speech. The commission also included a draft amendment bill, The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2017, which said: “Whoever on grounds of religion, race, caste or community, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, place of birth, residence, language, disability or tribe, uses gravely threatening words either spoken or written, signs, visible representations within the hearing or sight of a person with the intention to cause, fear or alarm; or advocates hatred by words either spoken or written, signs, visible representations, that causes incitement to violence shall be punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, and fine up to Rs 5000, or with both.” The amendment bill also said: “Whoever in public intentionally on grounds of religion, race, caste or community, sex, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth, residence, language, disability or tribe- uses words, or displays any writing, sign, or other visible representation which is gravely threatening, or derogatory, within the hearing or sight of a person, causing fear or alarm, or with the intent to provoke the use of unlawful violence, against that person or another, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year and/or fine up to Rs 5000, or both.”

The Supreme Court directed the Central government to respond to the law commission’s recommendations within two weeks, observing that the bench will look at the present law’s insufficiency to effectively address hate speech. Currently, hate speech provisions are found in three different chapters of the IPC, “Of Offences Relating to Religion”, “Of Offences Against the Public Tranquillity” and “Of Criminal Intimidation, Insult and Annoyance”. Section 295A, IPC was enacted to specifically target speech that intended to outrage religious feelings by insulting religion or religious beliefs. But it appears that these laws have proved to be insufficient in curbing hate speech. In view of this, it appears likely that the menace can be tackled only by bringing new provisions in the existing laws with a specific aim to handle hate speech.

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