Sealed cover jurisprudence: Kerala HC upholds Centre’s reasons for revoking license of MediaOne TV on the ground of ‘national security’ without divulging them

THE Kerala High court earlier today upheld the Union Government’s decision to revoke the license of the Malayalam news channel MediaOne TV on grounds of national security, effectively confirming the ceasing of operations of the channel.

The channel’s parent company, Madhyamam Broadcasting Limited, had been issued a show cause notice on why the Centre should not revoke its license keeping public order and national security and integrity as a priority, on January 5. Madhyamam had requested the government to not proceed with the notice without hearing the company. The company argued before the high court that they had never been given reasons as to how they violated national security, and denied clearance, in violation of principles of natural justice. It also contended that the cancellation of its license was illegal and unconstitutional, by virtue of violating Articles 1419 and 21 of the Constitution, offending the freedom of press, and summarily depriving the channel’s 320 employees of their livelihood without the opportunity of being heard.

On the other hand, the Assistant Solicitor General of India S Manu argued that the freedom of the press is not absolute, and could be restricted on grounds of public order, decency and morality, among other things. He also emphasized on the legal position established by the Supreme Court in previous judgments that national security is a question of policy, not law, and must be left to be governed by the Executive branch of the State. Therefore, in a situation of national security, a party could not insist for the strict observance of the principles of natural justice.
The question for adjudication before the single judge bench of Justice N. Nagaresh was whether the revocation of license of the channel by the government without informing it of the exact grounds for the same, under the pretext of national security, or giving it a chance of being heard, was in abgrogation of the principles of natural justice, or whether natural justice is permitted to be bypassed on grounds of national security by the government.

Justice Nagaresh ended up upholding the latter. He expressly states that “it is clear that the principles of natural justice and interference by courts in the matter of national security, have very limited role.”

Elaborating on the same, he writes: “The right to a fair hearing may have to yield to overriding considerations of national security. Since national security must be paramount, natural justice must then give way.

However, relying on the Supreme Court’s judgment in the case of Ex- Armymen’s Protection Services Pvt. Ltd. vs. Union of India & Ors. (2014), he provided that there is a limited scope of review of the government’s decisions in such cases. In that judgment, the Supreme Court had held:

“Depending on the facts of the particular case, it will … be open to the court to satisfy itself whether there were justifiable facts, and in that regard, the court is entitled to call for the files and see whether it is a case where the interest of national security is involved. Once the State is of the stand that the issue involves national security, the court shall not disclose the reasons to the affected party.”

Justice Nagaresh then goes on to note that the relevant files on the basis of which the Union Ministry of Home Affairs [MHA] had decided to revoke the channel’s license, had been made available to the court. He writes that the files made out that the MHA’s Committee of Officers took note of inputs given by intelligence agencies relating to Madhyamam, and “found that the inputs are of a serious nature and [fall] under the security rating parameters.” He therefore concludes that the Committee’s recommendation to revoke the channel’s license, accepted by the MHA, is justified by the supporting material.

The MediaOne TV channel had been on air for over ten years, having been granted the requisite permissions by the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on September 30, 2011. It is owned by Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, which makes it one of the few Indian news channels whose ownership lies with an Islamic organization.

It had earlier been prohibited from transmission in March 2020 in connection with its reporting of the Delhi riots. As revealed before the high court by the petitioners’ counsel, a prohibitory order against transmission for 48 hours had been issued against the channel on March 6, 2020, before being abruptly lifted the very next day. The Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had claimed that the channels had an outrightly biased critique of the Delhi Police and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh.

The bench of Justice Nagaresh had earlier granted interim stay on the union government’s order on January 31, later extending it till February 7.

Click here to read the Kerala High Court’s judgment.

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