Context: The Supreme Court denied the request of the Indian government seeking a directive to news outlets to refrain from publishing any COVID-19-related news without clearance from the government.
- The government, and the court hearing its solicitor general, blamed the exodus of migrant workers from the cities into the countryside on fake news.
- The government invoked the Disaster Management Act on March 11, which makes the “act of creating panic” a criminal offense. According to this law, any false claim or warning is punishable with up to two years imprisonment and a fine, or both.
- The government has also invoked the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act under which the punishment for spreading misleading information is up to six months in jail, a fine of 1,000 Indian rupees (US$15), or both.
- This law enables states to ban public gatherings, ask schools and large institutions to stop functioning, and issue advisories to companies to explore work-from-home models. It also gives the state a right to penalise media organisations spreading misinformation.
Salient features of the SC order
- The Court has underscored the need for kindness by the police and the authorities in the way they treat the workers and their families.
- It has accepted the official narrative that “fake news” about the duration of the lockdown being “three months” caused a panic reaction from migrant workers across States.
- The Court directed the media to refer to and publish the official version about the developments”, with a disclaimer that it does not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic.
- The Supreme Court rightly directed the government to activate a mechanism for delivering official updates on the coronavirus crisis and measures to contain it every 24 hours.
- The order cites the penal provisions in the law for punishing those who disseminate information amounting to false alarm or disobedience to a public servant’s instructions.
- Fake news not solely responsible for migrants’ exodus: It was quite obvious that the short notice of just four hours for the lockdown to take effect, the lack of planning and coordination with the States, the fears of the people about being left without cash and running out of food, and worries about their families back home were the principal reasons.
- Absence of credible communication and assurances from the government also contribute.
- Court’s restraint on interfering in the situation: Dealing with a pandemic, be it in the form of framing a strategy for prevention and treatment, or limiting its devastating economic fallout, is primarily the duty of the executive.
- Press’s proactiveness is helpful: It was extensive and sustained media reporting on the developing crisis which prompted governments at the Centre and in the states to step in to contain the exodus and deliver support to the migrants.
As WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said, humanity is fighting two foes — a pandemic and an “infodemic”. But the antidote is not to rely on an authorised version, which could gloss over unpleasant truths, but informed choice.
- The media is the enabler of that choice. It was put on the list of essential services during the lockdown so that it could bring credible news of the pandemic both to the people and the government.
- A daily press conference, where questions are fielded and answered is the most effective way of a government reaching citizens during a crisis. Especially when they need guidance on issues that affect their life and livelihood, details needed to make decisions and secure lives.
However, as it has chosen to examine the humanitarian dimension to the crisis, it would be in the fitness of things if it asked more searching questions of the government and ensured greater accountability in these distressing times.
Image Source: Economic times