The Supreme Court of India on Friday said that television channels in India were dividing the society and were being driven by an agenda to sensationalise news, Bar and Bench reported.

A bench of Justices KM Joseph and BV Nagarathna also said that those who fund the channels dictate their content.

“Everything is driven by TRP [television rating point],” Justice Joseph said, according to Live Law. “They sensationalise things, serve an agenda. The visual medium can influence you much more than a newspaper.”

The bench was hearing a batch of petitions seeking action against hate speech. In September, the court had observed that television news channels often escape without any punishment for giving space to hate speech. A month later, it had asked the police forces in Delhi, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh to take action in cases of hate speech irrespective of the religion of the offenders and without waiting for complaints.

At Friday’s hearing, the court also said that news anchors who promote or indulge in hate speech should be punished, reported Bar and Bench.

“If a fine is there on anchors they will know that there is a price to pay for this [hate speech],” the court said. “Anchors can be taken off [air] too.”

The bench also criticised the functioning of the News Broadcasting Standards, saying the regulator was not doing anything.

“NBSA should not be biased,” Justice Joseph said, according to Live Law. “How many times have you taken off anchors? Channels don’t allow people to speak equally. People you don’t want to are muted! Others are going unchallenged.”

Advocate Arvind Datar, appearing on behalf of the News Broadcasting Standards, told the bench that action has been taken against several violations, but added that television channels like Sudarshan TV and Republic TV do not fall within its jurisdiction.

One of the petitions the court was hearing relates to a show on so-called “UPSC Jihad”, which had been aired on television channel Sudarshan News in 2020. The channel had claimed that Muslims are “infiltrating” the civil services by using terror funding from abroad.

The Supreme Court at the time had noted that the programme was “insidious” and had been telecast with the intent and purpose of vilifying Muslims.

On Friday, Advocate Vishnu Shankar Jain, appearing on behalf of Sudarshan News Editor-in-Chief Suresh Chavhanke, referred to speeches made by Islamic preacher Zakir Naik in 2013, and claimed that no action had been taken against him.

To this, Justice Joseph said that the Supreme Court wants to deal with hate speech irrespective of the offender’s religion.

Meanwhile, Additional Solicitor General KM Nataraj, on behalf of the Centre said that the practice of self-regulation is being followed in the media.

“Unless something serious happens which affects national interest or security of the country, the Centre won’t step in,” Nataraj said, according to Live Law.

He added: “We are contemplating a separate amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code. That is the stand of the Union of India.”