BBC Documentary Row: Apex Court Agrees to Hear on Feb 6. Pleas Challenging Centre’s ‘Ban’ on Documentary About PM Modi

(Judicial Quest News Network)

Senior Advocate Prashant Bhushan, Mahua Moitra (MP), Trinamol Congress and Journalist N.Ram have jointly knocked on the Apex court challenging Central government orders to block the BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the 2002 Gujurat riots.

A simila petition has also been filed by Senior Advocate ML Sharma foe an early hearing before a bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud.

The writ petition filed under Article 32 of the Constitution seeking directions restraining the Respondents from censoring the information contained in the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Documentary titled, ‘India: The Modi Question’ and to call for and quash all orders directly or indirectly censoring the same, including but not limited to order dated 20.01.2023 passed by Respondent No. 1 and all subsequent and consequential proceedings arising therefrom. The order dated 20.01.2023 and subsequent and consequential proceedings arising therefrom are not in the public domain.

The contents of the documentary series do not fall under any of the restrictions specified in Article 19(2) or B restrictions imposed under Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000.It was submitted

It is further highlighted by the petitioner that, as per the top court’s judgments, criticism of the government or its policies and even Supreme Court judgments do not tantamount to violating the sovereignty and integrity of India.

The petitioners further contended that All citizens including the press have the fundamental right to view, form an informed opinion, critique, report on, & lawfully circulate the contents of the documentary as right to freedom of speech and expression incorporates the right to receive and disseminate information.

It is extensively argued that the documentary is a journalistic production by a media house regarding a part of Indian history ranging back over 20 years. It is the product of journalistic endeavor and contains the accounts, interviews, and statements of various citizens of India, in addition to official documents and facts that are already part of the public domain.

While the content of the Documentary may be seen as critical of the past conduct of various persons who are currently holding office within the Central Government, the contents thereof are protected under Article 19(1)(a). By 21 issuing impugned Blocking Orders and seeking to prevent access to and discussion about the Impugned Documentary by the Indian public, the Respondents are violating:

A. the freedom of the press, represented by the journalists who produced and are featured in the Impugned Documentary;

B. the exercise of the right to free speech by various citizens of India who have appeared in the Impugned Documentary and wished to disseminate their opinions on the events pertaining to a specific time in Indian history; and

C. the exercise of the right to free speech, and the right to information, by various Indian residents, including the Petitioners, who wish to view the Impugned Documentary and initiate public debate and discussions across social media platforms in this regard.

The order dated 20.01.2023 issued by the Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, and subsequent and consequential proceedings under Rule 16 of Rules, 2021 censoring the documentary and tweets of the petitioners are not available in the public domain. Censoring the freedom of speech and expression of the petitioners by the Executive through opaque orders and proceedings is manifestly arbitrary as it frustrates the fundamental right of petitioners to effectively seek judicial review of administrative actions under Article 226 and Article 32 of the constitution of India in violation of the Basic Structure of the Constitution of India.The petition further stated.

The plea also contended that as per section 69A (1) of The IT Act, an order restricting freedom of speech and expression has to be in writing and must record reasons.

In the present case, neither the order nor the reasons are in the public domain.Freedom of Speech and expression cannot be curtailed in such manifestly arbitrary manner.

Therefore, the apex court has been urged to issue an order restraining the Centre from curbing the petitioner’s right to receive and disseminate information contained in the documentary.

The petitioners have also quoted the observations made by Justice DY Chandrachud, when he was a Bombay High Court Judge, while overturning a bam on the movie “Chand Bujh Gaya” made in the backdrop of the Gujurat riots.

Under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution guarantees to every citizen the fundamental right to the freedom of speech and expression. Films have always been regarded as constituting a powerful medium of expression. …..In a democratic society every citizen has a right to speak as indeed, the right to know. Knowledge of the affairs of governance and the invocation of peaceful forms of dissent is a necessary precondition to the existence of a stable society formed of informed citizens. Nothing can be as destructive of the social fabric in a democratic society than the attempt of those who govern to prevent access to information to those whose security depends upon the preservation of order. An environment in which human rights are respected is nurtured by a vibrant flow of information and avenues for a critical assessment of governance.

It is further argued that while the content of the documentary may beseen as critical of the past conduct of various persons who are currently holding office within the Central Government, the contents therefore are protected under Article19(1)(a).

The ministry of Information and Broadcastinghas invoked its emergency powers under Rule 16 of the InformationTechnology (Intermediary Guidelines and DigitalMedia Ethics Code) Rule 2021 (IT Rules 2021) to direct YouTube and Twitter to removethe links of the documentary.However the orders passed by Ministry are not published.The only information availableto the public is the tweet of Kanchan Gupta, Senior Advisor Ministry of Infromation and Broadcasting, Government of India, saying that BBC world documentary on Prime MinisterNarendra Modi, has been blocked on You Tube  and Twitter.As the formal order is yet to be published, the reasons cited to invoke  the emergencepowers are not withheld from the public.

The petition is filed by Advocate Prateek K Chadha and drawn by Advocates Rahul Gupta, Suroor Mandar, Cheryl D’souza and Varun Thomas Mathews.

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