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SC pulls up govt for ‘evasive’ affidavit on Tablighi event, says it makes ‘nonsensical’ claims

Government's affidavit bats for press freedom and says dissemination of facts, even though they may appear to be offensive or distasteful, cannot be curtailed.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday rubbished the central government’s affidavit in which it has denied that media reports linking Covid-19 cases to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation were fake. The court said the affidavit was full of “unnecessary” and “nonsensical averments”.

A bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde was hearing a batch of petitions alleging that a section of the media was spreading communal hatred over the congregation that took place in Delhi’s Nizamuddin in March. The petitioners wanted the court to lay down guidelines on curbing fake news.

The government’s affidavit, which was filed in August, 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.

CJI Bobde, however, dubbed the affidavit evasive and expressed the court’s discontent over a junior officer signing it. “You cannot treat this court the way you are treating. Your junior officer, additional secretary (information and broadcasting ministry), has filed the affidavit,” he said.

The court then ordered, “You have the secretary of this department file an affidavit without making such nonsensical averments stating the petitioners have not shown any instance of bad media reporting.”

The CJI also asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to ensure that a fresh affidavit is filed before the next hearing that is to take place a week later.

Also read: No proof to show Myanmar nationals attending Tablighi event spread Covid, says Bombay HC

‘Freedom of speech may be the most abused’

The government, in its affidavit, had submitted that attacks on health workers by some sections after the March congregation were all matters of fact that cannot be censored. Censure of news, as sought by the petitioners, would be contrary to and an anathema to free speech as guaranteed by the Constitution, it added.

The top court bench, however, called this affidavit brazen and offensive. Mehta was asked by the court to file a fresh affidavit which must include instances of bad reporting and what the secretary of information and broadcasting ministry has to say regarding the incidents.

“We also want all acts under which you have exercised similar powers in the past,” the CJI added.

This direction was given after the court noted that applicability of the Cable Television Networks Act can be exercised only in relation to cable TV and not television signals.

“Now we want to know, does the government have the power to ban or question the TV broadcast signals,” the CJI asked.

Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, appearing for the petitioners, contended that the government has in the past controlled TV channels, using powers under the Cable Television Networks Act. “This is an admitted fact. This emanates from the Act,” he told the bench.

The bench, however, differed. “Just because they have exercised it does not mean it is mandated by law. They must exercise the power which is only vested on them,” the CJI said.

He further sought to question the government’s insinuation that the petitions aimed to “muzzle free speech” and said, “They are entitled to make any argument like you are. This freedom of speech is the most abused in recent times.”

Also read: Tablighis stuck in India even after plea bargaining as ‘surprise’ secondary FIRs surface


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