Not satisfied with affidavit on pleas over media reporting of Tablighi congregation: SC to Centre

New Delhi, Nov 17 (PTI) The Supreme Court Tuesday expressed displeasure over the Centre's affidavit in the case related to media reporting of Tablighi Jamaat congregation during the onset of COVID-19 pandemic, and said the government should consider setting up a regulatory mechanism to deal with such content on TV.

The apex court, which asked the Centre to consider creating a regulatory mechanism and apprise it, said the government should also inform as to what steps have been taken on the issue under the Cable Television Network Act (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," a bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.

"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," said the bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian.

The top court said the Centre, in its affidavit, has not dealt with the aspect of applicability of the CTNA and the legal regime concerning this.

"We want to know as to 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 organisation like NBSA (News Broadcasters Standards Authority)," the bench said.

The bench, which was hearing the pleas filed by Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind and others alleging that a section of the media was spreading communal hatred over Tablighi Jamaat congregation during the onset of pandemic, asked the Centre to file a fresh affidavit dealing with mechanism to regulate electronic media under the CTNA.

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 sought to know and questioned Mehta as to why the Centre has not created a body to regulate these things.

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 has posted the matter for hearing after three weeks.

In its affidavit filed in the apex court, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has said that majority of leading national newspapers of the country 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 that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has issued orders for blocking fake or misleading content related to issue of coronavirus on the social media.

The Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Markaz Nizamuddin in central Delhi in March was accused of accelerating the spread of the novel coronavirus, with its attendees allegedly carrying the infection to different parts of the country.

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 earlier this year.

The top court was irked over the fact that instead of secretary of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, an additional secretary filed the affidavit which contained "unnecessary" averments with regard to media reporting in 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 statues do not give it any authority to unilaterally pass any censure order under the Cable Television Networks Rules.

In its affidavit filed earlier in reply to the plea of Jamiat, the Centre had said: "Attempts to seek a blanket 'gag order' against the entire media in respect of Markaz Nizamuddin issue will effectively destroy the freedom of the citizen to know about the affairs of respective sections of the society in the nation and the right of the journalist to ensure an informed society." The Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind has filed a plea in the apex court seeking directions to the Centre to stop dissemination of "fake news" related to a religious gathering at Markaz Nizamuddin and take strict action against those responsible for it.

It has alleged that unfortunate incident of Tablighi Jamaat was being used to "demonise" and blame entire Muslim community and sought to restrain media from publishing/airing such reports.

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