In a major development in an ongoing hearing on a complaint against an inflammatory report, the Press Council of India (PCI) issued a bailable warrant for the arrest of the editor of daily newspaper Vijay Karnataka for failing to respond to a summons.

The hearing was held on February 25 and the order said:

Inquiry Committee in its meeting held on 25.02.2021 at New Delhi passed the following direction:

Despite service of Summons, the respondent has not chosen to appear. Issue bailable warrant of arrest for a sum of Rs.5,000/- for appearance of the respondent on the next date. The Commissioner of Police, Bangalore City is directed to ensure compliance of this order.

The matter arose out of a complaint filed before the PCI by the Bengaluru-based Campaign Against Hate Speech against Vijay Karnataka for a news report entitled: “ಕೊರೊನಾದಿಂದ ಸತ್ತವರೆಲ್ಲ ಒಂದೇ ಸಮುದಾಯದವರು – ಈಗಲೂ ಪ್ರಾರ್ಥನೆ ಹೆಸರಲ್ಲಿ ಗುಂಪು ಸೇರುವುದೇಕೆ? (Sattavarella onde samudayadavaru-Igalu prarthane hesaralli gumpu seruvudeke?)”, which translates as to ‘All those who have died from Corona are from the same community – why do they still come together in the name of prayers?”, published on 28.03.2020.

Adv Siddharth K J filed the complaint for the Campaign Against Hate Speech . Vijay Karnataka, a prominent Kannada newspaper published from multiple centres in Karnataka, is owned by the Bennett, Coleman and Co Ltd, publishers of the Times of India. The Vijay Karnataka editor-in-chief Hariprakash Konemane.

In a press release, the Campaign Against Hate Speech said :

We approached the PCI on the grounds that the article violated the Norms of Journalistic Conduct, 2019. We have asked that the PCI censure the newspaper for the article and also direct the newspaper to issue a public apology. A copy of our complaint to the PCI can be accessed here. This complaint was part of a larger effort of the campaign to combat the communalisation of the pandemic.

The Campaign Against Hate Speech is a group of concerned activists, parents, lawyers, academicians who work towards making the media accountable to journalistic standards, ethics and principles. On April 11, they wrote to the Editor of the newspaper registering their objections to the news report but to no avail. Then, on May 11, they filed a complaint to the Press Council of India.

The article violated basic ethics of journalism and spoke/instigated hate against a minority community, the complaint said. Several statements in the article suggested that members of a particular minority community had spread the Covid-19 virus. The statements resulted in an attack on a particular community, ‘blaming them for the
cause and spread of the virus. This information is not only false but specifically targets a minority community with intent to promote hatred and cause harm to communal harmony. In fact the article is a clear offence under Section 153A being made to promote enmity between different religions’, the complaint said.

The Press Council of India is a statutory body mandated to press freedom of the press and ensure that the press maintain a high standard of journalism. Set up on principles of self-regulation, it is headed by retired Justice C K Prasad and its 28 members are drawn from the media industry, journalists’ organisations and members of society. As a quasi-judicial body, it has the powers to summon and enforce attendance, examining people on oath. inspect documents and requisition any public record.

Its punitive powers are limited to warnings and censure and media houses have all but ignored its hearings, rarely appearing before it and failing to even publish orders passed against them. Nevertheless, it remains the only statutory body to regulate the media in India and its Norms of Journalistic Conduct are now being cited in the recently notified Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

Under Sec 15 (1) of the Press Council Act, 1978, the self-regulatory body has the power of a civil court, while trying a suit under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, to summon and enforce the attendance of persons and examine them on oath, call for documents, requisition public records etc. The penalty for default, under Sec 32 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 , includes issuing a warrant for arrest, attaching and selling property, imposing a fine of upto Rs 5000 and ordering the defaulter to furnish security for his appearance or commit the defaulter to a civil prison.

In their complaint, the Campaign Against Hate Speech drew attention to Principle 4 of the Norms of Journalistic Conduct, 2019: Caste, Religion, or Community References, which states:

“i. In general, the caste identification of a person or a particular class should be avoided, particularly when in the context it conveys a sense or attributes a conduct or practice derogatory to that caste.

ii. An accused or a victim shall not be described by his caste or community when the same does not have anything to do with the offence or the crime and plays no part either in the identification of any accused or proceeding, if there be any.
vi. It is the duty of the newspaper to ensure that the tone, spirit and language of a write up is not objectionable, provocative, against the unity and integrity of the country, spirit of the constitution, seditious and inflammatory in nature or designed to promote communal disharmony. It should also not attempt to promote balkanisation of the

In their arguments, the complainants drew attention to the order of the Supreme Court in Firoz Iqbal Khan v. Union
of India & Ors., (Writ Petition Civil No. 956/2020) pertaining to the broadcast of a program whose “drift, tenor and content” was to bring “the (Muslim) community into public hatred and disrepute”. The court observed that the “edifice of a democratic society committed to the rule of law under a regime of constitutional rights, values and duties is founded on the co-existence of communities. India is a melting pot of civilizations, cultures, religions and
languages. Any attempt to vilify a religious community must be viewed with grave disfavour by this Court as the custodian of constitutional values. Its duty to enforce constitutional values demands nothing less.”

In their complaint, the group submitted that the impugned article was a similar egregious attempt to vilify a religious
community with an intention to incite public disfavour against the same community.

In their release, the Campaign Against Hate Speech said that ‘Vijay Karnataka’s refusal to respond to repeated summons issued by the PCI shows its callous disregard for the authority of the body, which is unacceptable. It also indicates the lack of accountability that such a widely read newspaper has towards its readers. Without any further
delay, Vijay Karnataka must appear before the PCI for the next hearing.’

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