New Delhi, Apr 1: The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the right to free discussion about COVID-19, even as it directed the media to refer to and publish the official version of the developments in order to avoid inaccuracies and large-scale panic.
It ordered the government to start a daily bulletin on COVID-19 developments through all media avenues in the next 24 hours.
The apex court was hearing two petitions, one by advocates Rashmi Bansal and Anuj Gupta and another by advocate Alakh Alok Srivastava that brought the issue of plight of migrant labourers to the notice of the court.
The court, on Monday, asked the centre to submit a status report regarding the same. The government, pursuant to the court’s order, filed a detailed affidavit on Tuesday explaining the steps taken by it to combat the Covid-19 threat.
A Bench, led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde, was responding to a request from the Central government that media outlets, in the “larger interest of justice”, should only publish or telecast anything on COVID-19 after ascertaining the factual position from the government.
A Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) report in the court, signed by Union Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla, explained that “any deliberate or inaccurate” reporting by the media, particularly web portals, had a “serious and inevitable potential of causing panic in larger section of the society”.
The Ministry said any panic reaction in the midst of an unprecedented situation based on such reporting would harm the entire nation. Creating panic is also a criminal offence under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, the Ministry said.
But the court took a view balancing free press and the need to avoid panic in society during an unprecedented crisis. “We expect the media [print, electronic or social] to maintain a strong sense of responsibility and ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated. A daily bulletin by the Government of India through all media avenues, including social media and forums to clear the doubts of people, would be made active within a period of 24 hours as submitted by the Solicitor- General of India. We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct the media refer to and publish the official version about the developments,” the court ordered.
Noting that the 21-day nationwide lockdown was “inevitable” in the face of an “unprecedented global crisis” like the COVID-19 pandemic, the government blamed “fake and misleading” messages on social media for creating widespread panic, which led to mass “barefoot” journey of migrant workers from cities to their native villages in rural India.
“Deliberate or inadvertent fake news and material capable of causing a serious panic in the minds of the public is found to be the single most unmanageable hindrance in the management of this challenge… Will set up a separate unit headed by a Joint Secretary-level officer in the Health Ministry and consisting of eminent specialist doctors from recognised institutions like AIIMS to answer the queries of citizens,” the Ministry’s 39-page status report said.
The Ministry said the Narendra Modi government, in fact, took “pro-active, pre-emptive and timely” action 13 days before even the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a “public health emergency of international concern”. Very few countries responded as well as India.