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New Delhi: An ongoing hearing before a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court, looking into media coverage of sub-judice cases, has had its scope expanded to include coverage of criminal investigations and television shows containing sex and violence. The court intends to examine questions related to criminal investigations, including raids, questioning and arrests by police officials.

If the court does rule adversely, then crime reporting may no longer be the same and late-night television dramas may get a tad blander.

The four cases are: a public interest case concerning the coverage of the Aarushi Talwar double homicide; a contempt case in which a suspect of the Batla House encounter case was interviewed by India Today magazine; a public interest case by an NGO, Common Cause, on sex and violence being shown on general entertainment channels (GECs) that he believes is inappropriate for children; and norms for news channels in the light of alleged encounter killings in Maharashtra, where the media’s closeness with the police is being examined. The cases, except the one filed by Common Cause, largely touch upon the relationship of police officials and investigating agencies, and ask that no “leakage" of matter under probe is made to the press since it might prejudice the case.

India Today could not be immediately reached for comment.

Thus far, arguments in the four days of the constitution bench hearing on court coverage have bordered on these issues. Senior advocates Fali S. Nariman and Rajeev Dhavan and attorney general Goolam E. Vahanvati have expressed apprehension over the court’s intent to regulate the media in any way, arguing that it might upset the delicate balance of fundamental rights. Senior advocates Soli J. Sorabjee and K.K. Venugopal have taken a somewhat counter view to this.

But for the print, electronic and digital media, the case could potentially acquire a new hue and, consequently, implications. “It will now be regulation of media per se, not just regulation of coverage of court proceedings," said a person involved with the ongoing matter who did not wish to be identified. Informed observers believe the whole case might begin all over again in a sense, in light of the court’s notice. The News Broadcasters Association (NBA)—which represents 46 news channels and has evolved self-regulatory standards—has already argued before the court, as has the Editors’ Guild of India and the Forum for Media Professionals.

Paritosh Joshi, director, Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) and CEO of Star CJ, a home shopping channel, said, “NBA and IBF have sponsored self-regulatory initiatives for news and general broadcasting. Justice (J.S.) Verma, ex-chief justice of India, and Justice (A.P.) Shah, ex-chief justice of the Delhi high court, oversee the two self-regulatory bodies, NBSA (News Broadcasting Standards Authority) and BCCC (Broadcasting Content Complaint Council). The two bodies have just begun to get some traction with viewers and other stakeholders. It seems an inopportune time for state intervention in broadcast regulation. Also, it appears to run contrary to the government’s oft-repeated stance of encouraging self-regulation to the maximum possible extent."

GECs exercise self-regulation through IBF, which has 250 channels affiliated to it. A 13-member body called BCCC, which consists of a retired Supreme Court or high court judge as its head, deals with complaints against inappropriate content on behalf of IBF.

Aminah Sheikh in Mumbai contributed to this story.

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