Supreme Court of India
Inside the premises of the Supreme Court in New DelhiREUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

The Supreme Court on Monday asked media bodies, including the Press Council of India (PCI), as to why no prosecution proceedings were launched against media houses and journalists who disclosed the identity of victims of sexual assaults.

A bench of justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta said that the offence of disclosing the identity of victims of sexual assaults has criminal liability, and if the law has been violated, action must be taken. "How many people have you punished?" the bench asked the counsel appearing for PCI.

The PCI counsel said in cases related to disclosure of the identity of such victims, the power of the Council was limited to censure such publication and they also send their orders to the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP).

"If a publication has committed this criminal offence, it has to be prosecuted. Somebody has to prosecute them. Forget about DAVP. What about prosecution? You tell the police that there is the violation of the law and you prosecute them," the bench said.

"There is no point in saying that we have told the DAVP. Nobody knows it. You have to function under the law and the law says such persons (who discloses the identity of victims of sexual assaults) have to be prosecuted," the bench said.

The court also said that documents filed by the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) have "nothing" and it was quite clear from the affidavit filed by the authority that no prosecution has been launched against any of the alleged offenders.

It asked PCI, NBSA, the Editors Guild and the Indian Broadcasting Federation to file their affidavit on the issue within three weeks.

"We would like to know specifically whether these bodies can inform the police about such offence and if so, why they have not informed the police about the prosecution of alleged offenders," the bench said.

During the hearing, the counsel appearing for PCI said that they have to function as per the norms of journalistic ethics and standards and they have to identify which standard has been violated.

The counsel representing NBSA said that they have also imposed the penalty in such cases. "But you do not want to prosecute. Some lady has been raped and her identity is disclosed and you are saying that complaints are closed," the bench said, adding, "the law says that you prosecute the persons if the law is violated".

The bench also referred to the allegations of sexual misconduct and assault leveled by women across various fields under India's #MeToo movement.

The counsel appearing for Editors Guild and Indian Broadcasting Federation said they would file their affidavits. At the fag end, the PCIs counsel said that prosecution should be launched in such cases but the Council needed "some more teeth".

The top court had earlier issued notices to these four media bodies to assist it in the matter which deals with alleged non-compliance of statutory provisions about disclosure of the identity of victims of rape and sexual abuses by the media.

The issue had cropped up when the court was hearing a plea related to the Muzaffarpur shelter home where over 30 girls were allegedly raped and sexually exploited.