The top court also slammed the Centre for ‘doing nothing’ to curb hate news while hearing a batch of pleas on the TV coverage of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation during the onset of the COVD-19 pandemic
New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday said control over TV programmes having an instigating effect is as important as providing “lathis” to policemen for law and order and slammed the Centre for “doing nothing” to curb such shows.
Hearing a plea on the media reporting issue in the Tablighi Jamaat case, a bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde also referred to the internet shutdown in some areas of Delhi on 26 January when the tractor parade by farmers protesting against three new farm laws turned violent, leaving 300 policemen and scores of others injured.
“Fair and truthful reporting is normally not a problem. Problem is when it is used to agitate others. It is as important as providing ‘lathis’ to policemen. It is an important preventive part of the law and order situation,” said the bench, also comprising Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian.
Appearing for the Centre, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted that there are effective mechanisms in place to prevent the spread of hate news.
The CJI then told Mehta: “The fact of the matter is that there are programmes which have instigating effect and you being the government is doing nothing about it” the bench told Mehta.
“Control over some news is as important as some preventive measure and check law and order situation. I don’t know why you are blind to this. I don’t mean anything offensive but you are doing nothing about it”.
Mehta pointed out that the problem arises during live, discussion-based programmes, as there cannot be pre-censorship of such programmes.
The bench said: “We are not interested in what the people say on TV. They can say anything these days and use any tone on TV but as long as they do not instigate, incite violence, we have no problem with that. We are interested in broadcasts or programmes which have instigation effect and there are situations when it can cause riots, and there can be loss of life, property”.
Mehta agreed with the bench and said that sometimes it is done “deliberately” but sometimes it is “unfortunate”.
The top court made the observations while hearing a batch of pleas which have raised the issue of media reporting of Tablighi Jamaat congregation here last year during the onset of COVID-19 pandemic.
The congregation at Nizamuddin Markaz in the national capital in March last year, attended by thousands of Indian and foreign nationals, was cited as being responsible for accelerating the spread of coronavirus or COVID-19 , with its attendees allegedly carrying the infection to different parts of the country.
The bench told Mehta, “Yesterday, you shut down the internet and mobile because of the farmers’ visit to Delhi. These are problems that can arise anywhere. I don’t know what happened on the TV yesterday”.
When Mehta objected to the word “farmers’ visit” saying it cannot be called visit, the CJI said, “I am deliberately using the non-controversial term”.
The Solicitor General said that during a terrorist attack, some TV channels even gave information about the movement of forces by telecasting the details of security forces.
The CJI referring to the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai said, “I was a judge at that time in Bombay High Court”.
He told the bench that there are self-regulatory bodies like the broadcaster associations and News Broadcasters Standards Authority (NBSA) also has its own system.
Counsel for NBSA said that whenever they receive any complaint, they act upon it and ask the channel to air an apology and no programme is allowed to be broadcast which violates the programme code.
Mehta added that “Now, we are in the era of OTT. There was DTH, cable service etc too. We can give details of all the systems including the legal system in place”.
The bench asked all the parties to file their affidavits, if any, in the matter within three weeks and said the matter will be heard thereafter.
“List these matters on a non-miscellaneous day after three weeks for a hearing. In the meantime, all the affidavits, if any, may be filed by the parties,” the bench said in its order.
In November last year, the apex court had expressed displeasure over the Centre’s affidavit in the case and said that the government should consider setting up a regulatory mechanism to deal with such contents on TV.
Observing that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s affidavit did not deal with the applicability of Cable Television Network Act (CTNA) in the case, the top court had said that the government has the power to put a regulatory mechanism in place and it cannot be left to an agency like NBSA.
The top court, 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 a pandemic, had asked the Centre to file a fresh affidavit dealing with a mechanism to regulate electronic media under the CTNA.
The plea filed by Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind has sought directions to the Centre to stop the dissemination of “fake news” related to the Nizamuddin congregation and take strict action against those responsible for it.
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