Karnataka HC Dismisses Plea Against Hateful Statements After Tablighi Jamaat Incident, Says the Court Cannot Define “Hate Speech”

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Brief Facts

On May 28, Campaign Against Hate Speech, an organisation along with others, filed a PIL in the Karnataka High Court. Media houses and political leaders had been promoting hostility through hate speech. Several of the Tablighi Jamaat members, as we know, tested positive for Coronavirus. ‘Hateful statements’ were made against them. Moreover, the Muslim community along with other minorities too got targeted. Hence, the plea called for swift action against the same.

Submissions by the Petitioners

The petitioners sought immediate action so that the ‘Rule of Law’ could be upheld in the State. Targeting people from minority religion had resulted in instances of social and economic boycott. Article 19(1) of the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression. Yet, the State also has the authority to restrict that freedom. This is being done in the name of upholding State security and public order.

The petitioners also described the consequences of making hate speech. Hate speech not only dehumanizes the targeted group but also leads to its ouster. Further, they submitted that hate speech needs curbing. In any case, the constitutional values of equality, fraternity and non-discrimination needed safeguarding.

The Court also placed reliance on two cases including State of Karnataka v. Praveen Bhai Togadia, a 2004 SC judgement. In the case, the SC had observed that ‘caustic and inflammatory speech can create disharmony’. This can ‘disturb equilibrium’ and ‘sacrifice public peace and tranquillity’. It hence necessitates ‘preventive action’.

The petitioners drew the Court’s attention to the provisions under the IPC, 1860. Section 153 A, Section 153 B, Section 295 A, Section 298 and Section 505(2) provides for punishing certain kinds of speech. The petitioners also took a dig at “inciteful speech and reportage” on COVID-19 in India by the media. Respondent No. 4 i.e. the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued various advisories. These were directions against defamatory speech so as not to incite violence. However, various media organisations had not followed the same.

Political leaders and media alike had sustained continuous campaigns. They linked the spread of the disease to the minority community. Fear and hate against the minorities followed dividing communities.

Prayer

The petitioners prayed to call for records of the action taken by the Respondents in this regard. In total, there were seven respondents:

  1. The State of Karnataka,
  2. Ministry of Home of the Karnataka Government,
  3. Head of the State’s Police Force,
  4. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting,
  5. The Press Information Bureau,
  6. The Chairperson of the Karnataka State Level Monitoring for Private Television Channels,
  7. The Commissioner of Police.

They prayed for issuance of a Writ of Mandamus to take action against media houses and political leaders. Moreover, they asked to takedown inflammatory videos and reports targeting specific communities. They also asked for Call for records w.r.t the formation and working of the state and District Level Monitoring Committee for private channels.

Central and the State Governments’ Arguments

  1. The Centre had already issued several guidelines to private satellite TV channels. The aim was to promote “communal harmony” in both the states and the union territories of India.
  2. The petition was rather a “publicity interest litigation” and not a PIL.
  3. The complainants could seek an appropriate remedy under the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

The High Court’s Order

The Division Bench of Justice BV Nagarathna and MG Uma dismissed the writ petition. The Court concurred with the State Government. Some of the prayers were unclear and could not be sought by filing a writ petition under Article 226 of the Indian Consitution. The Court said that it could not direct either the Parliament or the State Legislature on the issue. There was an absence of a definition of ‘hate speech’. This was because the Parliament had not yet legislated on the concept. The Court could not issue directions “on the basis of the impact of hate speech” on certain sections of society. The petitioners should have filed complaints under the provisions of Cr.P.C.

There were also various acts to complain against what was being considered a ‘hate speech‘. The petition under Article 226 was not maintainable. Thus, the Court dismissed it.


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