New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government Friday batted for press freedom and said dissemination of facts by the media, even though they may appear to be offensive or distasteful to certain individuals or sections of the society, cannot be curtailed under Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution.
In an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) opposed a batch of petitions alleging that a section of the media was spreading communal hatred over the Nizamuddin Markaz event in March.
The petitioners wanted the top court to lay down guidelines on curbing fake news.
One of the petitioners include Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind, an organisation of Islamic scholars belonging to Deobandi school of thought.
The government also denied that media reports linking Covid-19 cases to the congregation were fake. Attacks on health workers by some sections after the event were all matters of fact that cannot be censored, the government noted.
Censure of news, as sought by the petitioners, would be contrary to and an anathema to free speech guaranteed by the Constitution, said the government. It would not only impinge but also abrogate the right to know about facts related to the Markaz event, and a journalist’s right to keep the public informed, the affidavit further stated.
‘Can’t rely on fact-check portals’
The Modi government called for dismissal of all petitions, saying they made allegations in general and failed to give specific instances of objectionable news.
Grievances were raised by the petitioners against certain media organisations without naming them, the government said. While the petitioners expressed dissatisfaction over some reports, none of those were pointed out before the court, it added.
The central government also said assertions made without evidentiary backing cannot form the basis of a petition.
The petitioners had relied upon “fact-check news reports” to contend that the media was “perpetrating communal disharmony and hatred towards Muslims”, the government submitted. It also cautioned the apex court against giving credence to such fact-check reports and voiced doubts over their veracity.
“It is submitted that these ‘online fact-check portals’ are unregulated websites and mostly based on perception, conjecture, surmises and suppositions of the individual writing them,” the affidavit notes.
‘News reports were exaggerated but not fake’
The government also said that some reports “may be exaggerated” but none of them was either fake or false.
The I&B ministry said “attempts to seek a blanket ‘gag order’ against the entire media” will effectively destroy freedom of the citizen to know about affairs of respective sections of the society.
Only fake and false news do not enjoy constitutional protection of free speech, said the government, as it cited instances where prosecution has been launched in individual cases of false reporting too. Action was taken to remove or block 739 URLs and four accounts that spread misinformation on the virus that could lead to communal disharmony.
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