Political discourse must improve in social media age, says Supreme Court

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New Delhi: State force should never be used to browbeat a political opinion, the Supreme Court held while it called for an improvement in the public discourse, especially in the age of social media.

Urging the political class to be more tolerant of each other’s opinion while maintaining a temperate language in their critiques, a bench headed by justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul said that the debasement in dialogue has become a chief problem of democracy.

“It is undoubtedly the debasement in the dialogue which is taking place which needs introspection from the political class across the country. In a country which prides itself on its diversity, there are bound to be different perceptions and opinions, which would include political opinions. That is the very essence of a democracy,” said the bench, which also included justice MM Sundresh.

“No doubt, by the very nature of the job required to be performed by the political class, at times their exchanges may get heated. But it should not explode. We are sure difference in perception can be expressed in better language,” noted the bench in its order, as it lamented the decline in the quality of dialogue in the public arena.

The order was passed on Thursday, but released the following day.

In it, the bench also urged state governments not to use the State’s powers to intimidate journalists for reporting on something which is already in public domain or is in exercise of their right to free speech and expression.

“State force should never be used to either browbeat a political opinion or the journalists suffer the consequences of what is already in the public domain,” held the court.

At the same time, the bench added that “this does not take away the responsibility of the journalists in how they report the matter, more so in a Twitter age”.

The court’s discontent came through as it quashed four criminal cases registered by the West Bengal Police against editors and journalists of web portal OpIndia. The FIRs were lodged against OpIndia editor Nupur J Sharma, her husband Vaibhav Sharma, portal founder and CEO Rahul Roushan, and the former editor of its Hindi division Ajeet Bharti. The cases invoked charges relating to promoting enmity between religious groups, outraging religious feelings, attempt to provoke breach of peace and defamation.

After the state government informed the top court on Thursday that it has decided not to pursue the criminal prosecution in the four cases, the bench proceeded to quash the FIRs.

“We are, however, not inclined to let go of the opportunity of saying something which is troubling the society and the court. It is undoubtedly the debasement in the dialogue which is taking place which needs introspection from the political class across the country,” rued the bench.

It underlined that the very fact that FIRs were lodged against the journalists for reproducing what the political class has said against each other, and which was already in the public domain, is an indication of degradation in public discourse.

“We must appreciate the stand taken by the state government and allay any apprehension of the that it may be perceived in a negative sense in public domain. If at all, the stand is to be appreciated of better late than never and should be a model for others to follow,” stated the court order.

During the hearing on Thursday, the bench cited the example of former prime ministers PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee to point out that despite belonging to different political parties and opposing each other at several public platforms, both the leaders maintained a mutual respect for each other and always used appropriate language.

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