The Supreme Court (SC) on Thursday expressed grave concern over certain social media portals and YouTube channels spreading fake news in the absence of a regulatory mechanism. “If you go to YouTube, you will find how fake news is freely circulated and anyone can start a channel on YouTube,” observed Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, sitting on a bench with Justices Surya Kant and AS Bopanna. He said the social media portals write anything against judges and institutions “without accountability” and only listen to powerful voices.
The court agreed to hear, after six weeks, the Centre's plea seeking transfer of all petitions from various high courts to itself on the issue of the newly-enacted Information Technology (IT) rules meant to regulate the online contents, including social media and portals. The Centre complained that the social media is opposing these rules since it does not want any fetters on its irresponsible reporting.
The SC bench also expressed concern over some social media platforms and web portals show distorted news bearing communal tone, which may bring a bad name to the country. It was hearing a bunch of petitions, including a 2020 PIL by Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind, seeking directions to the Centre to stop dissemination of “fake news” related to a religious gathering at the Markaz Nizamuddin last year and take strict action against those responsible for accusing its attendees spreading Covid-19 in India.
The Jamiat had mentioned before a bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Aniruddha Bose on July 16 that its writ petition has been pushed to the back burner that led to the CJI to take up the matter himself. “Everything shown in a section of private news channels also bears a communal tone. Ultimately, this country is going to get a bad name. Did you ever attempt to regulate these private channels?” asked the bench. It regretted that “there was no control over fake news and slandering on web portals”.
Asked by the CJI why there was no regulatory mechanism to filter out fake news, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta pointed out that a redressal mechanism and timely resolution of grievances of users of the social media and over-the-top platforms was already provided under the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rule, 2021, that require these platforms to appoint a grievance redressal officer who is a resident of India. The rules are, however, under challenge before many high courts and require to be clubbed together for hearing by the apex court, he said.
When the CJI lamented that some media outlets aired communal content linking the spread of the coronavirus to a Tablighi Jamaat meet at Nizamuddin in Delhi, the Jamiat lawyer pointed out that it was the government itself that was “encouraging” these outlets to spread such news.