New Delhi: Expressing its disappointment with the Centre’s affidavit on action taken against the circulation of fake news, the Supreme Court on Tuesday directed the government to create a mechanism for addressing grievances against such news that is circulated by television channels and other media. “What is shown on TV channels is of great consequence for the country,” it remarked.
Centre told to set up mechanism, file reply on action in three weeks
The apex court made the observation after an affidavit was submitted before it by the secretary in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Amit Khare in the matter of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind and others versus Union of India and another.
As Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted that the Central government has enough powers to regulate content of TV channels but is mindful that the right to free speech as a fundamental right is available to the media, the court asked him to create a mechanism for addressing grievances related to fake news if none existed at present. The court also asked the Centre to submit a response within three weeks about the mechanism it possessed under the Cable TV Network Regulation Act to stop fake news and what action it has taken.
Petition urged action against media that communalised COVID spread during Markaz
The petition in the case had urged the Supreme Court to issue a writ, order or direction to the Central government to stop the dissemination of fake news and take strict action against the sections of the media spreading bigotry and communal hatred in relation to the Nizamuddin Markaz organised by Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi in March this year. It also sought action against media that was communalising the issue and urged strict compliance with the earlier directions of the apex court issued on March 31 this year.
In its response, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting submitted through the affidavit that the Central government has issued several directions to prevent dissemination of fake news leading to abrogation of communal harmony and that advisories were also sent out by the MIB to the channels from time to time to adhere to the programme code.
‘News reports, articles largely had a balanced, neutral perspective’: MIB
The Ministry’s affidavit largely relied on the coverage of several news portals and newspapers who had highlighted how the Jamaat was unfairly targeted to state that “news reports and other articles in this context have reflected multiple viewpoints of the stakeholders related to the events, and predominantly stuck to a balanced and neutral perspective.”
The affidavit submitted that “the majority of the leading national newspapers of the country including print editions such as The Times of India, The Indian Express and Hindustan Times have carried largely factual reports in this context. Online newsportals 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.”
The affidavit thus contended that “wide ranging views and opinions have been expressed across media platforms on the Tablighi Jamaat which are not communal in nature.”
However, in taking this line that some news portals or newspapers were objective and responsible, the ministry missed out on the crucial aspect that this was hardly proof that others in the Indian media were as well or that there was no problem with communal reporting elsewhere.
‘There could be several views, perspectives in public domain’
The ministry almost defended the conduct of the media that hounded the Jamaat and its members after several of those who attended the Markaz tested positive for COVID-19, saying, “in any particular issue there could be several views and perceptions in the public domain …. any section of the media may seek to highlight different events, issues and happenings across the world as per their choice.”
The ministry charged that “the petition is based upon vague assertions based upon certain `fact checking news reports’ to contend that entire media is perpetrating communal harmony and hatred towards one particular community” and was seeking “wide ranging, vague, unrestrained pre-telecast restriction that too on the basis of unverifiable reports.”
MeitY issued advisories, directed blocking of four accounts, 739 URLs on social platforms
The affidavit also mentioned how the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), which has the power to block information under Section 69 A of the IT Act 2000 and Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009, has already issued advisories categorically informing the intermediaries to remove false news or misinformation concerning COVID-19 which are likely to create panic among public and disturb the public order and communal harmony.
The ministry submitted that directions for blocking coronavirus-related false content was issued for two accounts and 111 specific URLs on Facebook; two accounts and 613 URLs on Twitter; three URLs on Youtube, and 12 URLs on Instagram. Thus in all, four accounts and 739 URLs were directed to be blocked. It also added that “some of the aforesaid URLs were related to Tablighi Jamaat and were communal in nature as they were giving religious colour on corona issue and were anticipated to create public order situation.”
Fact-check unit set up under PIB, received 8,150 complaints
The MIB also claimed that it had set up a Fact Check Unit in the Press Information Bureau on April 2, 2020 – with a link – and that it received communication in 8,150 cases till October 23 out of which 7,350 cases had been replied to while the rest had been referred to the States.
The affidavit also stated that in view of the apex court’s directions in Alakh Alok Srivastava Vs. Union of India on March 31, 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs also directed that requisite steps under Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act 2005 relating to preventing fake news should also be taken by the respective state authorities.