The Madras High Court on Monday decided to await the decision of the Bombay High Court in a case filed by satirist Kunal Kamra against the Centre’s decision to establish a Fact Check Unit (FCU), before taking a call in a case filed against a similar FCU established by the Tamil Nadu government.
Chief Justice Sanjay V. Gangapurwala and Justice D. Bharatha Chakravarthy adjourned a public interest litigation petition filed against the State government’s FCU to December 6, after senior counsel Vijay Narayan said the Bombay High Court was expected to deliver its verdict on December 1.
The AIADMK’s IT wing office-bearer, R. Nirmal Kumar, had filed the PIL. Representing him, Mr. Narayan, assisted by K. Gowtham Kumar, said the government had made a statement in the Assembly only for setting up a social media cell in the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR).
However, it had gone about creating a FCU which, as per law, could be created only by the Centre under the Information Technology Act and the statutory rules framed thereunder. Even the Centre’s power had been questioned before the Supreme Court as well as the Bombay High Court, he said.
When the Chief Justice sought to know what was wrong in establishing the FCU, which could help the police in identifying fake news, the senior counsel said there was a threat of the FCU turning out to be an agency to impose censorship as far as criticism of government activities were concerned.
“The police will have little choice but to act when the FCU refers certain matters that it concludes to be fake news. This will be a very dangerous tool in the hands of the government to completely terrorise people. This is something which will have a chilling effect on free speech,” Mr. Narayan argued.
The world over, governments have stayed from constituting such FCUs. Fact checking of social media content was being done only by private entities affiliated to the International Fact Checking Network, he added.
He also told the court that the State government had created as many as 80 posts in the FCU and appointed a Mission Director too without publicising the recruitment process. However, senior counsel P.S. Raman and Additional Advocate-General J. Ravindran said only eight posts had been filled so far.
They also told the Division Bench that the FCU was necessitated in view of falsehoods such as the fake news on mass killing of Biharis in Tamil Nadu having been shared widely on social media recently. The judges decided to hear them further on December 6.