The Centre on Friday told the Supreme Court that a Muslim body's attempt to obtain a blanket "gag order" on the entire media to prevent them from reporting the Markaz Nizamuddin issue will effectively destroy the freedom of the citizenry to know and the right of journalists to ensure an informed society.
The government 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.
The Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind 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.
The Jamiat has alleged that the unfortunate incident of Tablighi Jamaat was being used to "demonise" and blame the entire Muslim community and sought to restrain the media from publishing/airing such reports.
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 carrying the infection to different parts of the country.
A bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian took the Centre's affidavit on record and asked the petitioner to file their rejoinder by August 26, the next date of hearing.
In its affidavit field in reply to the plea of the Jamiat Ulemma e-Hind, the Centre 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."
It said that dissemination of facts by the media, prima facie, does not amount to attack on religion or religious communities and the same also does not amount to visuals or words contemptuous of religious groups or words/opinions which promote communal attitudes.
The Centre said the relief sought in the petition is nothing but a relief akin to a "blanket gag order" on the entire media in respect of reporting of the Nizamuddin Markaz incident.
"The prayers of such sweeping nature ought not to be entertained by this court, in as much as, the same will inevitably result in muzzling, stifling and choking of free speech as guaranteed to the media house/journalist under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India, the Centre said.
It said that passing of any blanket order in the nature of "a gag order", as prayed in the writ petition, without identifying the specific objectionable news reports published by a named and identified media house and without affording an opportunity to hear such media house/ channel/agency would ex-facie result in stifling of right guaranteed to the journalists and media house under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, to air their views through television as well as print media.
"Such an order 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, the Centre said, adding that the petition, which falls to name/identify a definite objectionable report published or carried out by named and identified media house, is liable to be dismissed.
It said that reporting of incidents, which have transpired in the society during the lockdown and airing views on the same, is protected speech under the Constitution of India.
The government said that action like registration of FIRs in specific identified cases where instances of false reporting offending the religious sentiments of the public, has come to light; issuance of blocking orders, wherever, the union of India has come across inciting posts and issuance of advisories to the social media platform to prevent circulation of false news related to corona virus has been taken.
Any order passed by the answering respondent, on the basis of pleading made in the present petition and the other connected petition would be completely contrary to the right of free speech guaranteed to journalist and media houses and would amount to arbitrary censure of the journalistic freedom,it said.
The affidavit said that insofar as the Markaz issue is concerned, the government has neither come across nor has been intimated with any specific media report which has violated the provision of Cable Television Network Rules, 1994.
"The news reports based on facts which are prima facie not per se false or fake cannot be censured under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution. Dissemination of such facts by the media houses, even though they may appear to be offensive or distasteful to certain individuals or a section of society, is nevertheless, protected under Article 19 (1) (a),it said.
The censure of such nature would not only impinge but would also abrogate the right to know of the remaining section of the society about true and correct facts related to the Markaz event during COVID era and the right of journalist to keep the society informed, it said.
The government said that the appropriate efficacious remedy for the petitioner was to approach to the secretary of the Press Council of India.