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News channel 'MediaOne' can air for now, SC stays Centre's ban

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday stayed till further orders the January 31 directive of the Centre revoking license of Malayalam news channel 'MediaOne' and banning its telecast on security grounds.

A bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, Surya Kant and Vikram Nath said the news and current affairs channel will continue its operations as it was operating prior to the ban of telecast.

"We are of the view that the case of grant of interim relief has been made out. We order and direct that order dated January 31, 2022 of the Union government revoking the security clearance of Madhyamam Broadcasting Ltd stands stayed pending further orders," the bench ordered.

"The petitioners (Madhyamam Broadcasting Ltd and Pramod Raman editor of the channel and others) shall be permitted to continue operating the news and current affairs channel 'MediaOne' on the same basis as it was operating prior to the revocation of clearances," it said. The bench passed the order after perusing the files filed by the Centre on the basis of which security clearance was revoked and the Kerala High Court had passed the order upholding the ban on telecast.

The bench left the question open on whether the content of files on the basis of which the ban order was passed be given to the channel to enable it to defend itself.

The top court asked the Centre to file a detailed counter affidavit by March 26 on the appeals filed by the channel against the High Court order.

At the outset, senior advocate Dushyant Dave, appearing for the media house, said that on Tuesday the Chief Justice of India in another matter disapproved the practice of giving reports in a sealed cover. He said the sealed cover business strikes the very basis of law and cannot be encouraged.

He added that in the High Court the Centre gave the reports in a sealed cover and they were not given a chance to defend it.

The senior counsel said the order of the division bench accepted that the renewal of the licence is automatic and then upheld the revoking of the licence on security grounds.

"I have been running my business since 2011 and I have millions of viewers. Now I have been shut down and 382 people are out of job," Dave said, adding that permission for downlinking was granted for five years in 2019.

He said: "No media channel will be safe if this principle is accepted. Everyone can be shut down."

Additional Solicitor General SV Raju, appearing for the Centre, said he needs a week to file a detailed affidavit, and granting them interim relief would mean granting them actual relief.

The bench asked Raju: "What is the difficulty in disclosing the files to them. Their business has been shut down. They need to know on what basis this was ordered, so that they can defend themselves. All that you have said in the High Court is that on the basis of intelligence inputs a decision was taken."

Additional Solicitor General KM Nataraj, also appearing for the Centre, said they have brought the files but it is for the perusal of the court and they are not shying away from sharing with the court.

Dave said that heavens are not going to fall if they are allowed to run the channel and for six weeks we have been shut down just because the channel is being run by a member of a minority community.

They have not pointed out a single instance when I have violated the programme code, he said.

Justice Chandrachud said that he is averse to the sealed cover jurisprudence and asked Dave whether he has any objection if the court peruses the files which are produced by the Centre.

Dave said that he has no objection to the court perusing the files.

Nataraj pointed out that after the single-judge of Kerala High Court passed the order, this media house through a Youtube channel run by it had criticised the judgment and the judge by making personal remarks.

This is serious because they have tried to browbeat the court, he said, adding that the channel is liable to be held guilty for contempt of court.

Justice Chandrachud said citizens have the right to criticise the judgments of the court but they cannot make personal remarks against a judge.

Dave, appearing along with senior advocates Mukul Rohatgi and Huzefa Ahmadi, said that he had condemned the said Youtube programme but it cannot be a ground to shut the channel.

The judges then retired into their backroom to peruse the reports saying they will return after 10-15 minutes and dictate the orders.

On March 10, the top court had sought response from the Centre on the channel's plea of against the Kerala High Court order upholding the Centre's decision to ban its telecast on security grounds.

It had asked the Centre to place on record the file which was relied on by the high court.

The Kerala High Court had upheld the Centre's decision to bar telecast of the Malayalam news channel and dismissed the plea of Madhyamam Broadcasting Ltd — which operates MediaOne — challenging the Central government's January 31 decision.

The high court had said that the decision of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to deny security clearance was based on intelligence inputs received from various agencies.

The channel had contended that MHA clearance was only required at the time for fresh permission/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.

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