An affidavit filed by the Centre in response to a petition seeking action against television channels for allegedly disseminating fake news about the Tablighi Jamaat , and communalising a congregation organised by the Islamic missionary group, is “evasive” and contains “nonsensical” arguments, the Supreme Court observed on Thursday.
A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde took exception to the fact that the Centre’s affidavit had been filed by a junior officer from the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB) and also did not address any specific instances raised by the petitioners.
“You cannot treat this court in this way. The affidavit is filed by a junior officer. It is also extremely evasive and says the petitioner has not cited any instance of bad reporting. To say that you don’t agree with the petitioner is one thing, but how can you say no incident is pointed out,” CJI Bobde told solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the central government.
Mehta replied that he would see to it that a fresh affidavit is filed addressing the concerns raised by the court and also admitted that the affidavit should have come from a senior government functionary.
The affidavit was filed by an undersecretary at the MIB in August, opposing the petition on grounds that any action against media houses could amount to a “blanket gag order” against the entire media in respect of reporting on the Tablighi Jamaat congregation, and be violative of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution that protects free speech.
In March, the Tablighi Jamaat organised a religious congregation at its Markaz headquaters in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti whose participants violated curbs put in place, including a ban on large gatherings, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease. In March and April, around 900 foreigners were arrested in the city for allegedly violating the conditions under which they had been allowed to visit India.
Petitions before the top court were filed in April by the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, Peace Party, DJ Halli Federation of Masjid Madaaris and Wakf Institute and an individual, Abdul Kuddus Laskar, alleging that the media was reporting the Markaz incident in a skewed manner and demonising the Muslim community.
The centre’s affidavit said: “Such an order (to gag the media) would inevitably also impinge upon freedom of the citizen to know about the affairs of the society and the right of the journalist to ensure an informed society.”
Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, who was representing the petitioners, submitted that the government has claimed the issue involved muzzling of free speech.
“Freedom of speech is one of the most abused freedoms of recent times,” CJI Bobde remarked.
About the incident in question, the Centre said: “Insofar as the Markaz issue is concerned, Union of India has neither come across nor has been intimated with any specific media report which has violated the provisions of Cable Television Network Rules 1994, Guidelines for Up-linking from India, and the Programme Code prescribed under Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995.”
The court asked Mehta to ensure that the fresh affidavit is filed by concerned department’s secretary level officer.
“The secretary must tell us what he thinks of the specific incidents (cited by the petitioner). He may agree and or disagree with what has been stated (by the petitioner) but must not make unnecessary, nonsensical averments like what has been done now,” CJI Bobde said and posted the case for further hearing after two weeks.
The court also asked the Centre to clarify which provision of the law could be specifically employed by the government to impose a bar on the broadcast of television channels.
The Nizamuddin area in Delhi was sealed on March 30 after it came to light that several people, who had attended the congregation, were found to be infected with the coronavirus disease. At least 16,500 people had visited the Tablighi Jamaat’s headquarters between March 13 and 24.
The petitioners submitted that the reportage of the incident by certain sections of the media were in violation of journalistic norms and the provisions of the Cable TV Networks Regulation Act and the Programme Code under that Act which prohibits the airing of programmes attacking a religion or community and promoting communalism.
The centre’s affidavit said that the petition had not cited any specific instance of objectionable news reportage published by any particular media house.It said the petition was based on opinions expressed in certain “fact check portals” and cannot be entertained given the doubts surrounding the veracity of reports published by such websites and the opinions canvassed by them.
“These online fact check portals are unregulated websites and are mostly based on perception, conjecture, surmises and supposition of the individual writing them,” it added.