Inform us about mechanism to deal with fake news: Supreme Court
The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Centre to provide information on the existing legal regime to deal with complaints about the content on television channels and said that the government should consider setting up a regulatory mechanism to do this if one doesn’t already exist. It also expressed displeasure with an affidavit filed by the Centre highlighting the various advisories issued time to time to curb fake news.
“What is shown by the television channels has a great consequence in this country...We want to know what legal regime exists to deal with such complaints (of fake news) and how these complaints have been dealt with in the past,” a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde said, giving three weeks’ time to the Centre to file a fresh affidavit in this regard.
The court was hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind and other parties, who objected to the reporting by certain television news channels and news portals on the Tablighi Jamaat event in March. After the religious gathering, the Nizamuddin markaz — where it was held — emerged as one of the early hot spots of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in the national capital.
On October 8, when the court last heard the PIL , the bench asked the Centre to file a response on steps taken to ensure fake news is not circulated through online and electronic media platforms. The government, through the ministry of information and broadcasting, filed an affidavit on November 13 and cited its advisories.
The bench, also comprising Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, found the affidavit unsatisfactory. “In your affidavit there is not a whisper about what action you have taken under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act. Further, there is no mention about any authority entrusted to go into these complaints (of fake news). We are disappointed with this reply,” the bench told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.
This was the second affidavit the government filed in response to the PIL. An earlier affidavit by the Union Government on August 6 was also found to be short of details when it comes to action taken against erring websites and news channels for fake news. “Freedom of speech is one of the most abused freedoms of recent times,” the court observed on October 8.
Mehta, who appeared for the Centre, informed the bench on Tuesday that the November 13 affidavit is sufficient and answers all queries by the court. However, he agreed to supplement it with the fresh information sought by the bench. Mehta said that the Centre has power to prohibit content on television channels, which are found to be violative of a programme code.
For this, there is a committee, which has members from outside the Information and Broadcasting Ministry who watch the content and give their opinion, Mehta said.
“There has to be a mechanism provided by you. Today, there is a situation that we have to ask a private body – News Broadcasting Standards Authority — to examine the issue. If you are not willing to examine, we will ask the outside agency; then don’t complain,” the bench observed.
Advocate Ejaz Maqbool, appearing for the Jamiat Ulama i-Hind, agreed to file a response to the Centre’s affidavit. The court posted the matter for hearing after three weeks.
The petition filed by Jamiat sought directions from the court “to stop the dissemination of fake news and take strict action against sections of the media spreading bigotry and communal hatred in relation to the coverage of Nizamuddin markaz event”. The latest affidavit of the Centre said that media outlets at large – both print and online — have responsibly covered the event.
The Centre accused the petitioner of picking out some news reports to seek pre-telecast ban on airing of content. “The petitioner has selectively picked up a few articles / reports appearing in some of the web portals and private fact check portals to create an impression that the media had communalized the issue of Tablighi Jamaat and to create a false narative about the role of media,” the November 13 affidavit said.