Supreme Court concerned over ‘fake news’ on Covid-19
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.Updated: Apr 01, 2020 02:19 IST
Media should maintain a strong sense of responsibility, while disseminating news on coronavirus and should ensure that unverified and fake news is not published, the Supreme Court said on Tuesday after the central government drew the court’s attention to the possibility of people panicking due to “fake” and “inaccurate reporting” of news connected with Covid-19.
Media should refer to and publish the official version about developments regarding coronavirus threat, the court said, while maintaining that it does not intend to interfere with the “free discussion” about the pandemic.
“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. 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 order passed by the court read.
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.
In the affidavit by Home Secretary, Ajay Kumar Bhalla, the centre had also prayed that directions should be issued by the court to the print, electronic and social media to not publish anything without first ascertaining the factual position by way of a mechanism provided by the central government.
“Any deliberate or unintended fake or inaccurate reporting either in electronic, print, or social media and particularly web portals has a serious and inevitable potential of causing panic amongst large sections of the society”, the affidavit stated.
The bench of Chief Justice of India, SA Bobde and justice L Nageswara Rao underscored the need to prevent spread of incorrect information through social media platforms. It also noted that the migration of large number of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lockdown would continue for more than three months.
“Such panic driven migration has caused untold suffering to those who believed and acted on such news. It is therefore not possible for us to overlook this menace of fake news either by electronic, print or social media”, the court said in its order.
In a bid to combat spread of fake news, the court directed the central government to publish a daily bulletin through all media avenues including social media platforms.
“Centre’s prayer (to restrain media) is absolutely absurd. Controlling fake news is one thing while having pre-censorship is another thing. They are effectively saying that whatever the government says is the only version This prayer by centre is virtually a plea for pre-censorship of media and is unknown to any democracy”, said Mahesh Menon who teaches law at Daksha Fellowship.
The Centre in its affidavit said that while action can be taken by authorities against those crating panic under the Disaster Management Act, a direction from the court will go a long way in mitigating any potential damage resulting from a false alarm.
“Of course, a framework is currently in place under the Disaster Management Act but it is not in negation of Constitutional or fundamental rights. Article 19 (1)(a) which guarantees freedom of speech and expression is still very much in place. Part of the reason why things got out of control in China was there was no free media there and the state officially tried to suppress the information and facts”, Menon added.
The court’s order does specifically mention that it will not interfere in “free discussion of the pandemic” but it also asks that the media “refer” to and “publish” the “official version about the developments.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what this would entail. For instance, almost all state governments put out official bulletins with the number of confirmed cases and deaths , but the dashboard of the ministry of health and family welfare updates this with a significant lag.
The Centre also informed the court that large-scale exodus of migrants, mostly daily wage labourers, was under control and that most of them have been taken to government shelters. According to the status report submitted by the centre, 666,291 persons have been provided shelters and 2,288,279 persons have been provided food.
“I have instructions to state that no one is now on the road. Anyone who was outside has been taken to the available shelters,” solicitor general Tushar Mehta, the Centre’s second senior-most law officer, told the court
The court recorded the submissions of the centre and expressed hope that all authorities will comply with the directives, advisories and orders issued by the union government.
The hearing on Tuesday also included steps to be taken to avoid panic among residents of shelter homes. The central government suggested roping in the services of trained counsellors, and religious and community leaders, to counsel those lodged in shelter homes, a suggestion which the court accepted.
The countrywide lockdown, which began on March 25, led to an exodus of labourers from large cities to their homes in distant towns and villages of other states. The situation was particularly dire in Delhi over the weekend, when tens of thousands crowded the Anand Vihar bus terminal in East Delhi to travel parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Many of them violated the lockdown and set out on foot along with their families.
In its affidavit, the government said that there is an institutional response monitored at the highest political and executive level, led by the Prime Minister.
“Indian government gave an institutional response to the management of Covid-19 most scientifically and methodically. The situation was monitored at the highest political and executive level by the Hon’ble Prime Minister”, the affidavit said.