Del HC | Content Regulation has been a contested issue across the world. Read HC’s stance & directions in Disha Ravi’s plea alleging leaking of her messages, etc. by Police

Delhi High Court: Prathiba M. Singh, J., while addressing the matter concerning the environmental activist, Disha Ravi, expressed that:

The print and electronic media plays a very important role in ensuring that there is no sensationalism and that they adhere to responsible journalism. Recent coverage by the media definitely shows that there is sensationalism.

An environmental activist, Disha Ravi filed the present petition seeking reliefs against the Police, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and various news channels in respect of what are allegedly attributed to leakage of her messages and various other investigation material which has been broadcasted and disseminated by the TV channels at the behest of Delhi Police.

Disha Ravi was arrested on 13-02-2021 in Bangalore and brought to Delhi, after which Duty Magistrate, Patiala House Court had sent her on police remand.

Disha’s Claims

She claimed that after her arrest, various messages etc. were leaked by the police to media resulting in a large number of programs, news bulletins and online dissemination of various private messages and interventions which were broadcasted.

She also submitted that some bulletins also made allegations that she was associated with various illegal and unlawful groups.

Senior Counsel, Akhil Sibal, submitted that the Official Twitter handle of the petitioner also released various comments about the investigation which is going on and these formed the basis of the reports by the News Channels.

Four reliefs claimed by Disha Ravi

Firstly, that the alleged WhatsApp conversation ought to be removed from the public domain and the police should be directed not to disseminate anything, which is not part of the public record.

Secondly, media houses ought to be directed to comply with the program code and the advertisement code.

Thirdly, the Delhi police ought not to share the investigation files and ;

Lastly that the police ought not to conduct any press briefings.

What the Court Observed?

Bench noted that the present matter raised issues with regard to public importance and the three aspects present are as follows:

Firstly, the privacy, dignity of the individual concerned as also her right to fair trial.

The second aspect would be the sovereignty/integrity of the country and whether there could be reasonable restrictions that could be imposed considering the nature of the investigation that is currently taking place.

The third aspect would be the right to free speech and the right of the public to know.

While granting time to the respondents for an opportunity to respond to the allegations, Court stated that the question to be addressed at the present stage will be whether the present state of affairs ought to continue?

Bench had the opportunity to view the videos on record of News18 and several other materials.

There is no doubt that the regulation of content in print and electronic media has been a very contested issue across the world and India is no exception to that. The reasons for the same are not far to seek in as much as content regulation is viewed as being directly affrontive to the Right of free speech.

Expressing its views more on content regulation, Bench added that while a journalist cannot be asked to reveal the source, it would have to be ensured that the source ought to be a verified and authentic source and the content ought to be merely speculative or conjectural.

Content also ought not to be offensive, scandalising and to the extent, possible should be factual in nature.

Bench noted that, Delhi Police took an unequivocal position that they are not responsible for the leaking of messaged or the investigation material to the media house. Whereas the media houses in their reports took a contrary stance, hence the said issue would require detailed examination.

Next, Court dealt with regard to the ad interim directions to be passed and noted that:

While police briefings and the happenings in Court proceedings etc. can also be broadcasted and disseminated, leaked investigation material ought not to be disseminated so as to prejudice the investigation.

Directions issued down by the Court:

  • The Delhi Police will strictly abide by the affidavit dated 18th February, 2021, which has been filed today as also the Office Memorandum dated 1st April, 2010, which is, admittedly, still in operation. The Delhi Police or other investigation authorities would, however, be, in terms of the said OM, entitled to conduct their briefings in accordance with law so long as no rights of the Petitioner are violated.
  • Media houses shall also ensure that the telecast/broadcast by them is from verified/authenticated sources, though the sources need not be revealed. All disseminated content shall be in strict adherence to the `Programme Code’ as contained in the Cable Television Networks Rules 1994 as also the Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards prescribed by the News Broadcasters Association.
  • Editorial teams of the respective channels shall ensure that only such broadcasts and telecasts are communicated and disseminated, which have verified data and verified content. The channel editors shall ensure that the channels exercise proper editorial control so that the Petitioner’s investigation is not hampered, in any manner.
  • If the charge-sheet is filed in the meantime and the same is made public, once the investigation reaches some conclusion, dissemination of the contents of the charge-sheet would not be interdicted in any manner.
  • Since there is an allegation that persons who sympathise with the Petitioner’s cause are attempting to malign the police and investigation authorities, Mr Akhil Sibal, Senior Counsel while denying the allegation, assures that the Petitioner or any other person directly associated with her do not intend to indulge in any kind of maligning of the police or the investigating authorities. This assurance is accepted by the Court.
  • The question of removal of content, which is already in public domain shall be considered with the hearing of the stay application at a later stage.

While directing the media, in general, to adhere to the above directions, Court directed NBSA to communicate the directions to its members.

Matter to be listed for further hearing on 17-03-2021.[Disha A. Ravi v. State (NCT of Delhi), 2021 SCC OnLine Del 822, decided on 19-02-2021]

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Avocates who appeared for the parties:

For petitioner:

Akhil Sibal, Senior Advocate with Vrinda Bhandari, Abhinav Sekhri,  Sanjana Srikumar, Krishnesh Sapat & Sonali Malik, Advocates.

For Respondents:

Tushar Mehta, Solicitor General, S.V. Raju, ASG with Amit Mahajan, SPP,  Rajat Nair, SPP and Dhruv Pande, Mallika Hiremath, Shantanu Sharma,  Sairica Raju, A. Venkatesh, Guntur Pramod Kumar, Shaurya R. Rai, Zeal Shah, Aarushi Singh and Anshuman Singh, Advocates for R-1/GNCTD.

Chetan Sharma, ASG and Ajay Digpaul, CGSC with Amit Gupta, Vinay Yadav, Sahaj Garg, Akshay Gadeock & R.V. Prabhat, Advocates for R- 2/UOI.

Nisha Bhambhani and Rahul Bhatia, Advocates for R-3.

Mrinal Bharti, Sumant De and Manish Shekhar, Advocates for R-4.

Hrishikesh Baruah, Pranav Jain, Mehma Kaur & Radhika Gupta, Advocates for R-5.

Kunal Tandon, Kumar Shashank Shekhar and Amandeep Singh, Advocates for R-6.

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