The Bombay High Court on Friday said that media had become “highly polarised”, Live Law reported. The court made the observation while hearing petitions seeking regulation of reportage, especially after actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death on June 14 this year.

“Journalists were responsible back then and neutral,” a bench comprising Chief Justice Dipankar Dutta and GS Kulkarni said of times gone by. “Now the media is highly polarised.”

Zee News’ lawyer Ankit Lohia argued against statutory regulations and said that the judiciary can intervene in case of “abuse” by a few organisations. “The checks and balances in place giving courts the power is what is better,” he said, according to Bar and Bench.

The court said that it did not wish to restrict the media. “There are precedents and we are bound by those precedents,” it said. “But we are dealing with something that is not in precedents, hence we will have to lay down guidelines.”

The judges added: “The difficulty arises when people forget their lines. Do whatever is permissible within the lines. Criticise the government. We are initiating a discussion so that the government can take suggestions.”

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The court objected to the media’s inferences in Rajput’s case. “How do you advocate that people who go around accusing others can find shelter of freedom of speech?” the court asked Lohia, according to Live Law.

India TV, meanwhile, claimed that it had not crossed the line while reporting on the case. It assured the court that it will continue to exercise restraint.

Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh told the court that the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate and the Narcotics Control Bureau had not leaked any information to the media. “We as an organisation know our jobs,” he said.

The petitioners’ lawyer Devdutt Kamat, on the other hand, contested the concern that the government regulation will interfere with press freedom. “This doomsday argument is no excuse to avoid a regulation,” he said. After hearing all sides, the court adjourned the case till October 29.

On Wednesday, the Bombay High Court had rebuked Republic TV for its reportage on Rajput’s death and asked whether the channel suggestively pronouncing on the merits of the matter that is sub judice and building public opinion on arrests constituted “investigative journalism”.

Coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death

Over the last few months, the death of the actor has dominated television news coverage. The Mumbai Police said it was a case of suicide, but subsequently Rajput’s family filed a complaint with the Bihar Police accusing his girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty of abetment of suicide and cheating. Three central agencies – the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate, the Narcotics Control Bureau – took up cases against her.

Investigation into the case also put Bollywood in muddied waters, as the Narcotics Control Bureau claimed to have unearthed a close nexus between illegal drug consumption and the film industry. On October 12, top Bollywood filmmakers and producers filed a lawsuit in the Delhi High Court against “irresponsible reporting by certain media houses” around Rajput’s death. The lawsuit was filed against Republic TV and Arnab Goswami and Pradeep Bhandari of the channel; and Times Now and its anchors Rahul Shivshankar and Navika Kumar.

On September 17, the Delhi High Court directed media houses to exercise restraint after actor Rakul Preet Singh filed a petition against unsubstantiated reports linking her with a drug case, in which Chakraborty is a prime accused. Singh had argued that media reports were being run in contravention with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting guidelines.

On September 3, the Bombay High Court asked the news channels to show restraint in reporting the case. When the matter came up before the court again on September 11, the court expressed surprise that there was no state control over electronic media.

Before that, the Press Council of India had advised media organisations to adhere to journalistic standards, refrain from sensational reporting and not conduct a parallel trial in the investigation into Rajput’s death. The Network of Women in Media had also criticised media houses for targeting Chakraborty and said investigating authorities should be allowed to do their job fairly.