August 7: The Centre on Friday told the Supreme Court that it did not find any objectionable content being aired by the media about the Nizamuddin Markaz event even as the National Broadcasters Association (NBA) and the Press Council of India (PCI) informed of 150 complaints pending with them with regard to the same incident.
The top court was hearing a petition filed by Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind that pointed out media reports were trying to demonize Tablighi Muslims who attended the Markaz and related stories showing how they were responsible for defying Covid-19 prevention protocols and causing the pandemic to spread. The Jamiat highlighted the issue so that in future the Centre could take corrective steps to prevent such reporting, Hindustan Times reported.
Jamiat’s petition was heard on Friday by a bench of Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde, Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian. The Court allowed Jamiat to file its response to the Centre’s affidavit and posted the matter for hearing on August 26.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting filed its affidavit disclosing its stand that it totally opposed the prayer in the petition which amounts to a “blanket gag order” against the entire media in respect of reporting on the Nizamuddin Markaz event which is a free speech right protected under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
The affidavit said, “Such an order (to gag the media) 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.” About the incident in question, the Centre said, “Insofar as the Markaz issue is concerned, Union of India has neither come across nor has been intimated with any specific media report which has violated the provisions of Cable Television Network Rules 1994, Guidelines for Up-linking from India, and the Programme Code prescribed under Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995.”
During the hearing, the Court sought to know the stand of NBA and PCI who are parties to the petition. NBA counsel Nisha Bhambani said, “We have received around 100 complaints and we are going to issue notices (to media organizations).” For PCI, senior advocate Preetesh Kapur said, “We have taken cognizance of around 50 complaints.”
The bench observed, “It is our experience that governments don’t act till Court gives directions…We want to pass order but feel handicapped. We want opinion of an expert body which is equipped to go into all this.” The bench suggested seeking the view of NBA headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice (Retd) AK Sikri.
Jamiat’s counsel senior advocate Dushyant Dave told the Court, “NBA is an advisory body which can only deal with complaints filed before it.” The Court has asked both NBA and PCI to submit their reports based on complaints received.
Jamiat’s petition had referred to news reports which sought to paint a picture that “demonized” the Markaz attendees as persons who spread the COVID-19 pandemic. The petition also highlighted media reports which showed some of the attendees who refused to follow social distancing and openly defied COVID-19 prevention protocols. Dave submitted to the Court that the Centre’s response indicated an adversarial stand.
The Centre said that the facts cited in these news reports are “neither per se false nor per se fake” and such reports cannot be censured. It further added, “Dissemination of such facts by the media houses, even though they may appear to be offensive or distasteful to certain individuals or section of society is nevertheless protected under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.”