NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Tuesday gave the Centre a piece of its mind for not filing a proper affidavit on the media reportage tying the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi to the Covid outbreak, and asked it to consider creating a regulatory mechanism for grievances against fake news on TV.
A bench headed by Chief Justice of India S A Bobde faulted the information and broadcasting ministry’s affidavit for not dealing with the applicability of the Cable TV Network Act (CTNA) in the case.
When Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, referred to the News Broadcasters Standards Authority (NBSA), a self-regulatory mechanism set up by the sector, the bench said: “Why should we refer to NBSA when you have the authority to look into it? If it does not exist then you create an authority... We want to know the mechanism employed by you. This affidavit has nothing on it.”
The Centre’s affidavit defended media reporting of the Tablighi event, saying it was largely balanced and neutral, adding “the media has made a clear distinction between the organisers and attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat event and the larger Muslim community in general.”
The top court, which was hearing pleas filed by Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind and others alleging that a section of the media was spreading communal hatred over the congregation during the onset of the pandemic, asked the Centre to file a fresh affidavit dealing with a mechanism to regulate electronic media under the CTNA.
"We want to know the mechanism employed by you and this affidavit has nothing on it. Why should we refer to NBSA etc. when you have the authority to look into it. If it does not exist then you create an authority. We can also hand it over to an outside agency," said a bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde.
“First you did not file a proper affidavit and then you filed an affidavit which did not deal with the two important questions. This way it cannot be done Mr Mehta,” the bench said.
Emphasising that self-regulation through the NBSA wasn’t good enough, the bench wanted to know if the Centre would create a legal regulatory regime for TV channels and slated the next hearing after three weeks.
“We are not satisfied with your reply... We want to know what is the mechanism to deal with these contents on television... Regulation cannot be left to organisations like NBSA,” the bench said.
The congregation at Nizamuddin Markaz in the national capital in March, attended by thousands of Indian and foreign nationals, was blamed by a section of the media as being responsible for accelerating the spread of coronavirus with its attendees allegedly carrying the infection to different parts of the country, according to the petitioners.
Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar on Monday touched upon the issue of absence of a regulatory body for TV channels, and said the Centre was considering suggestions for bringing a code of conduct for them.
"The Press Council of India is a self-regulatory body which has representations from various media houses as well as parliament. There have been discussions on giving more power to the PCI," he said.
"But for TV channels there is no self-regulatory body like PCI. We are getting suggestions to make a code of conduct for all TV channels but we are yet to take a decision on it," the minister said, adding that the government doesn't want to interfere but "press should present responsible journalism."
He was speaking at a webinar organised by the Press Council of India on the 'Role of media during the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on media' on National Press Day.
The minister had also said that freedom comes with responsibility and asked news organisations to avoid sensationalism.
During the court hearing, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, referred to the freedom of speech and expression of the media and said that NBSA is part of the self-regulatory mechanism.
The apex court, however, asked the Centre to consider creating a regulatory mechanism and apprise it on the issue.
It said the government should also inform as to what steps have been taken under the CTNA.
"First you did not file a proper affidavit and then you filed an affidavit which did not deal with the two important questions. This way it cannot be done Mr Mehta," the bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, told the law officer.
"Mr Mehta, we are not satisfied with your reply. We wanted you to tell as to what actions you have taken under the Cable TV Network Act."
Elaborating, the court said, "We want to know what is the mechanism to deal with these contents on television. If there is no regulatory mechanism then you create one. Regulation cannot be left to organisations like NBSA."
Mehta told the bench that several actions have been taken under the Act.
"You have to tell us how you have acted under Cable TV Act in some prior incident," the bench said, questioning Mehta as to why the Centre has not created a body to regulate these matters.
The bench said it had asked the Centre to specify how CTNA could be used to control the content of cable TV network and also about steps which could be taken to deal with such complaints but the affidavit is silent on these aspects.
The top court posted the matter for hearing after three weeks.
The I&B Ministry affidavit said a majority of leading national newspapers have carried "largely factual reports" on the issue.
"Online news portals such as The Print and The Wire have also undertaken objective reporting, through news reports, and analysis, through opinion and editorial articles of events concerning the Tablighi Jamaat."
"By and large, issues relating to health, law and order and the action taken by the central government and the various state governments for handling the pandemic have been discussed," the affidavit said.
It also said the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has issued orders for blocking fake or misleading content related to the issue of coronavirus on social media.
On October 8, the apex court had observed that freedom of speech and expression is the "most abused right" in recent times and pulled up the Centre for its "evasive" and "brazen" affidavit on media coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat event.
The top court was irked over the fact that instead of I&B Secretary, an Additional Secretary filed the affidavit which contained "unnecessary" averments with regard to media reporting on the Tablighi Jamaat issue.
In August, the Centre had told the apex court that a Muslim body's attempt to obtain a blanket "gag order" on the entire media to prevent them from reporting of the Nizamuddin Markaz issue would effectively destroy the freedom of the citizenry to know and the right of journalists to ensure an informed society.
The government had said that in the absence of any specific information about any objectionable news published or aired by a specific news channel/agency, the Constitution and the applicable statutes do not give it any authority to unilaterally pass any censure order under the CTNA.
The Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind plea sought directions to the Centre to stop dissemination of "fake news" related to the Nizamuddin congregation and take strict action against those responsible for it.
(WIth PTI Inputs)