The Delhi Legislative Assembly on Tuesday told the Supreme Court that it had summoned Facebook India’s vice president and managing director as a witness in connection with the February violence, reported Bar and Bench. It argued that Ajit Mohan cannot claim the right to remain silent as no coercive action was taken nor is intended to be taken merely if he appears before the Peace and Harmony Committee.
Mohan has been summoned by the panel regarding allegations that the social media giant did not properly apply hate speech rules and policies, contributing to the communal violence that hit the Capital in February. At least 53 people were killed and scores injured in the violence that rocked Northeast Delhi for days.
“No coercive action has been taken against the Petitioner No. 1 (Ajit Mohan) and none was intended if the Petitioner No. 1 merely attended and participated in the proceedings as a witness,” read the Delhi government’s affidavit, according to Live Law. “It is also important to note that the proceedings are being conducted in most transparent manner with live broadcast and therefore there is no question of any apprehension in respect of the proceeding either by the Petitioner No. 1 or anyone else.”
The Delhi government filed the affidavit in response to Mohan’s plea before the court. After the panel summoned Mohan twice and reportedly stated that his non-appearance would be treated as breach of privilege, the Facebook executive moved the Supreme Court. However, in its affidavit, the Delhi government clarified that no summons for breach of privilege or contempt have been issued to Mohan.
During a previous hearing on September 23, Mohan said that the Delhi Assembly panel has no right to take action against him as there is no law that empowers a state legislature to take coercive action against any person, unless it obstructs or impedes its legislative functions. The plea added that the matter falls within the exclusive domain of the Union of India, or the central government.
Mohan’s lawyer Harish Salve argued that under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, the right to free speech includes the right not to speak. Salve had added that his client cannot be forced to bear penalties for not appearing before the Assembly panel.
In response, advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for the Assembly panel, said the defence was under the mistaken impression that coercive action will be taken against Mohan. He also said that Article 19 cannot apply to Mohan since he is not an Indian citizen.
The Supreme Court had then ordered the Delhi Assembly panel to not take any coercive action against Mohan till October 15.
The chain of events
On September 15, the panel had warned the social media platform that not appearing before it was not only in “contempt” of the Assembly but also an “insult” to the two crore people of Delhi.
A lawyer representing Facebook had told the panel that the matter was under consideration of Parliament and was therefore “untenable”. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology chaired by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor met Facebook executives on September 2 to discuss content regulation, after questioning them for not taking down inflammatory content posted by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders.
The nine-member Delhi Assembly panel, mostly comprising AAP legislators along with one from the BJP, said they are well within their rights to summon the executives to answer serious charges levelled against them.
Facebook has repeatedly denied the allegations. “We prohibit hate speech and content that incites violence and we enforce these policies globally without regard to anyone’s political position or party affiliation,” a Facebook spokesperson had claimed. “While we know there is more to do, we are making progress on enforcement and conduct regular audits of our process to ensure fairness and accuracy.”
The company is facing intense political scrutiny in India, after the August 14 report that Facebook’s India policy head Ankhi Das had opposed removing incendiary posts by BJP leaders. A memo by a data scientist who was fired from Facebook Inc had also revealed that the social media company ignored or has been slow to deal with fake accounts that have affected elections around the world.