The Supreme Court on Friday issued notice to the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and sought a report from the Press Council of India (PCI) with regard to petitions seeking action against the media for communalization of the Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Delhi's Nizamuddin Markaz.
The Bench headed by CJI SA Bobde, along with Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, called for a general report from the PCI as it informed Court that cognizance of 50 cases had been taken by them. Appearing for PCI, senior advocate Preetesh Kapur informed Court that "We have taken cognizance of around 50 cases and will be passing orders on the quasi-judicial side."
Upon learning this, the CJI asked for a general report to be placed before the Bench and stated that after receiving the same, they could go into details of specific cases.
Appearing for the NBA, advocate Nisha Bhambhani also informed Court that the Association had received close to 100 complaints and were already looking into the issue. "We have looked at this issue and sat over it on July 25", informed Bhambhani. "That's very good", remarked the CJI as he went on to seek a response from NBA regarding the issue at hand.
At the outset, the CJI expressed his desire to allow an expert body to look into the matter. He was of the view that either the entire matter be transferred to an expert Organization, or a report be sought from such a body to assist the Court in arriving at a conclusion.
"We have received an affidavit from the Respondents (Centre) as well as the Broadcasters. We could request this Broadcasters' Association to hear you and look into the issue from the perspective of reporting standards...we're not belittling the problem, but are handicapped for a lack of expertise. An expert body needs to look into this", stated CJI Bobde.
Appearing on behalf of the lead petitioner, Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, senior advocate Dushyant Dave stressed on the fact that a lot of time has gone by without any action being taken.
He pointed out that despite the Court seeking a reply from the Centre within two weeks (when the matter was considered in May), he had received the counter only yesterday. "Two weeks expired in June. They filed the reply on August 6. The Union is taking an adversarial stand", he remarked. With this, Dave also stated that he would require some time to file a rejoinder, given that the Centre's response came only yesterday.
Emphasizing on the loss of time in dealing with this issue, Dave went on to urge the Bench that the Organizations that were appearing before the Court were not expert bodies and that their decisions only applied to their members. In response to NBA stating that they were looking into the complaints received by them, Dave was quick to point out that they still have not done anything. "But nothing has been done. Still no action has been taken, and this communalization has gone unchecked. We have already lost 2 months", argued Dave in an attempt to persuade the Court that reports may not be necessary and that swift judicial action is the need of the hour.
"Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself said in April that COVID-19 should not be communalised. Yet it is being communalised. This needs to be addressed", pleaded Dave.
CJI Bobde however was not moved by the argument and stated that the Court's focus was to ensure that the right decision is taken, and looking into the timeline in that regard would not be correct.
"That argument does not make sense. Should we take a wrong decision because of it? Just because of paucity of time, we will not pass wrong decisions. We want a general report on this, with names of others by the PCI as well as the NBA", remarked the Chief Justice.
He then stated that he was inclined to allow the petitioner 2 weeks' time to file a rejoinder.
Appearing for another petitioner, advocate Adeel Ahmad informed Court that in addition to NBA, News Broadcasting Federation (NBF) was the other parent organization from whom reports may also be elicited. As the CJI asked Ahmad to implead NBF as well, Dave reiterated his concern that these organizations did not have authority to take any action as they were merely advisory bodies.
"Only the Government can act and the Government has not done anything at all", urged Dave.
"Of course they won't act unless directed to", responded the CJI. "In our experience, Government does not act until we direct them to. What are Courts for", quipped CJI Bobde.
The matter will now be taken up after 2 weeks, as the Petitioners may file a rejoinder to the affidavit filed by the Centre.
In its counter affidavit, filed on August 6, the Union of India has asserted that the media cannot be gagged, as they have the right to report facts while the citizens have a right to know. It is contended that an attempt to seek a blanket gag order against the entire media will meddle with freedom of Indians to know about various sections of the nation and the right of the journalists to ensure an informed society.
The Centre has also averred that the claims of the petitioners are general in nature and based on certain "fact check news reports".
The Jamiat had moved Supreme Court seeking strict action against the media for communalization of the Tablighi Jamaat meeting in March.
The plea states that certain sections of the media have been using "Communal headlines" and "bigoted statements" to demonize and blame the entire Muslim community of deliberately spreading the corona virus across the country, which has in turn threatened the lives of Muslims.
It is pointed out that such reporting has triggered "communal antagonism" and has also perpetrated hatred at a time when united efforts are required to fight against COVID-19.
The petition stresses that the Government, particularly the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, has failed in its duty to give equal protection of the law to all persons in India under Article 14 of the Constitution by allowing the media to present facts in a twisted manner, using phrases that are prejudicial to the Muslim community.
The Court is taking up a total of three petitions which seek a common prayer.
In the last hearing, the Top Court had directed the Petitioners to implead NBA and sought a reply from the Centre as to why no action was taken by the Government under Sections 19 & 20 of the Cable Televisions Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995.