New Delhi, April 2: Slamming the brakes on political muck-raking on television, the Supreme Court today banned all ads offending “morality, decency and religious susceptibility” but allowed the telecast of those conforming to the “law of the land”.
It appointed the Election Commission the watchdog of political morality, giving it sole authority to monitor ads “capable of causing mischief” and empowering the “quasi-judicial body” to take suitable action in accordance with law.
The court also asked the poll panel how it proposed to check such ads and sought a reply on whether money spent by candidates on ads could be included in election expenses fixed at Rs 25 lakh per parliamentary seat and Rs 10 lakh per Assembly constituency.
The panel has been asked to reply by Monday.
“We are in the midst of watching a great cricket series and we do not want it to be substituted by political mudslinging,” the court said.
It warned cable networks and TV against airing any political advertisement that was “shocking, disgusting and revolting”.
From the observations, it appears the court has frowned upon political ads that exceed norms of decency but not upon political ads per se.
By appointing the poll panel as the monitor, it reinforces the differentiation it seems to have made. If all political advertisement is banned, there would not appear to be any need for monitoring them.
The Cable Television Network Rules, however, bars all political ads on TV. By removing the stay on this prohibition given by Andhra Pradesh High Court, the Supreme Court seems to have upheld that clause while at the same time making a difference on the basis of decency of the ad material.
It is a position that may require some clarification: whether all ads are banned or only those that are indecent are.
The interim order came two days after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee initiated the extraordinary step of getting the government to challenge a high court order allowing political ads on television.
Vajpayee had been distraught with the ad war raging on news channels. One ad showed Gandhi and Nehru fighting against colonial rule but ended — in a dig at Sonia Gandhi — with a voiceover that “today some people want to hand over power to a foreigner”.
In a tit-for-tat ad, Vajpayee was portrayed as a police informer during the Quit India movement. In another, a mask he wears falls off to reveal the face of Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse.
Arguing for the government, attorney-general Soli Sorabjee today said nobody was against the telecast of healthy political programmes.
“What one objects to is projecting the leader of Opposition in a bad light by linking her father to the Second World War, projecting the Prime Minister in a shocking manner….”
Both the BJP and the Congress welcomed the order, saying guidelines should be put in place for political ads in the electronic and print media. But smaller parties said all ads should be banned to provide a level playing field.
Today’s order, passed by a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice V.. Khare, removes the stay on rule 7 (3) of the Cable Television Network Rules which bars ads “directed towards any religious or political end”.
Andhra Pradesh High Court had stayed the rule on a petition by Gemini TV and other channels that the rule was discriminatory as it prohibited ads only on electronic media and did not bar them in the print media. This violated the fundamental right to speech and expression under Article 19, the court had said.