Plea challenging District Magistrate's ban on news via social media amid COVID-19: Punjab & Haryana HC issues notice
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Plea challenging District Magistrate's ban on news via social media amid COVID-19: Punjab & Haryana HC issues notice

"The same can be used to completely censor any information or news regarding the current affairs from reaching people online", the plea notes.

Meera Emmanuel

A ban on news via social media by Sonepat District Magistrate Shyam Lal Poonia in a bid to curb false information amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenged before the Punjab &Haryana High Court (Ankit Nain v. State of Haryana and anr).

The plea moved by law student Ankit Nain challenges the ban issued on journalistic activities and the dissemination of news through social media platforms including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Twitter, Telegram etc.

Justice HS Madan of the High Court yesterday issued notice in the plea and allowed the state government time to reply to the same. The matter has been fixed for hearing next on August 14.

On June 16, the District Magistrate, Sonepat, in his capacity as the Chairman of the District Disaster Management Authority, is stated to have stayed the operation of “All social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Twitter, Telegram, Public app etc. being used as news channels” by way of an executive order.

This executive order cited the Supreme Court's note of caution against the spread of fake news amid the pandemic in a May 31 order passed in the case of Alakh Alok Srivastava v. Union of India to justify the ban on social media-driven news circulation.

This order states that the news channels being banned were not registered with the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, or the Directorate of Information and Public Relations, Government of Haryana.

Stating that the spread of misinformation needs to be controlled, the District Magistrate proceeded to outlaw the circulation of news via social media by notifiying it as punishable under Sections 188, 505(1) of the Indian Penal Code, Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and Sections 1 and 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act 1957.

Similar bans have also been reportedly imposed in other districts of Haryana.

The plea moved by Nain through Advocates Vibhu Agnihotri, P Ivan Singh Khosa and Shivam Grover, however, contends that the District Magistrate has exceeded his powers under the Disaster Management Act in ordering this ban.

"The impact of the said order is, that any information sent through a social media platform, right or wrong, relevant or irrelevant, true or false, would amount to commission of the crime of disobedience of an order of a Public Servant, as given in Section 188, Indian Penal Code, 1860."
Petition filed in Punjab & Haryana High Court

The following grounds, among others, have been raised to argue that the executive order should be quashed:

  • There exists no mechanism or procedure to “register” oneself as a “news channel” either with Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting or with the Directorate of Information, Public Relations and Languages

  • In its May 31 order, the Supreme Court itself had emphasised that it does not wish to interfere with free discussion about the epidemic. This, the petitioner contends, "has been conveniently/accidently left out" in the executive order.

  • The executive order amounts to a disproportionate restriction on the freedom of speech and expression. The same is violative of Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution since the District Magistrate did not have the power to issue such an order. Therefore, the restriction imposed on free speech is not reasonable.

  • The order is extremely vague and the definitions contained therein as overbroad. The same can be used to completely censor any information or news regarding the current affairs from reaching people online. The same makes the order and the action of the state as manifestly arbitrary.

  • There is non-application of mind in passing the challenged order.

The petitioner has, therefore, urged the High Court to quash the executive order as being violative of provisions of the Constitution of India.

Read the Petition:

Ankit Nain v. State of Haryana and anr - Petition.pdf
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Read the Order:

Ankit Nain v. State of Haryana and anr - July 13 order.pdf
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