The Supreme Court Friday said it will pass directions on the pleas, alleging that a section of media spread communal hatred over Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi, after perusing the findings of Press Council of India (PCI) on around 50 such complaints.
A bench of Chief Justice S A Bobe and Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian said it will call for a report from PCI and on that basis, it will give directions.
"You give us your findings and on that basis, we are going to give our directions," the bench told PCI's counsel, who argued that the council has to decide on 50 complaints in this regard. The counsel appearing for News Broadcasters Association informed the bench that NBA too received several complaints and is going to issue notices.
The apex court was hearing a batch of petitions, including the one filed by Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind which has sought directions to the Centre to stop dissemination of "fake news" and take strict action against those responsible for it. During the hearing, senior advocate Dushyant Dave, appearing a petitioner, said the Centre has filed a reply affidavit and has taken a stand in the matter. He sought one week to file the rejoinder.
The bench said it would like the NBA to file the report on the issue as it is an expert body. Dave said that these bodies do not have powers.
"What power? We will call for a report (from NBA)," the bench said. Dave said that media reports spreading communal hatred have caused immense damage to the body fabric of this country.
The bench said, "You please understand, we feel handicapped. We want an expert opinion from a body which is designed to look into this." When the lawyers appearing for PCI and NBA apprised the court about the complaints received by them and the steps which these bodies will take on them, the bench said, "That is good."
Dave said four months have passed since the issue came to light but no action has been taken and this kind of behaviour by the media has gone unchecked. "We are not going to give any wrong decision because of time. We would like report from you (NBA) and Press Council of India. Mr Dave's client may also appear before them," the bench said.
When Dave said that these bodies have no power to take action, the bench said, "We have told you they we will keep it pending and we will give the directions. We have no control over time. We are not going to rush because of time.'' The bench told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta that from its experience, they know that authorities do not act unless they are directed.
The bench posted the matter for further hearing on August 26 and said that the petitioners may file their rejoinder affidavit in the meantime. In its reply filed in the court, the Centre has said, "attempt 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 the relief sought in the petition is nothing but a relief akin to a 'blanket gag order' against the entire media in respect of reporting of the Nizamuddin Markaz incident. "In the respectful submission of the deponent, 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 in its reply affidavit.
On April 13, the top court had declined to pass any interim order on the plea of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind seeking to restrain a section of media from allegedly spreading bigotry and communal hatred by linking the spread of coronavirus with the recent Nizamuddin Markaz incident, saying it would "not gag the press". The apex court had also asked the Muslim body, which has alleged that a section of media is spreading communal hatred over the Tablighi Jamaat event at the Nizamuddin Markaz in Delhi, to implead the PCI as a party to the case.
The plea of Jamiat has alleged that unfortunate incident of Tablighi Jamaat event was being used to "demonise" and blame the entire Muslim community. At least 9,000 people had participated in the religious gathering at Tablighi Jamaat's headquarters in Nizamuddin West in March and the congregation became a key source for the spread of COVID-19 in India as many of the participants had travelled to various parts of the country for missionary works.
The plea has sought directions to the Centre to stop dissemination of fake news and take strict action against the section of the media spreading bigotry and communal hatred in relation to the Nizamuddin Markaz issue. "It is submitted that such reporting has triggered communal antagonism and has also perpetrated hatred, resulting in fissiparous tendencies gaining foothold, undermining and affecting communal harmony," the plea has said.
The petition further stated that this "demonisation" of the community has led to serious "threat to life and liberty of Muslims", and has thus led to the violation of their "right to life under Article 21" of the Constitution.