Will treat action against pleas on social media as contempt: Supreme Court
A clampdown on messages for help on social media is the “worst way” to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, said the Supreme Court on Friday, warning all state governments against taking action against people using online platforms to make desperate appeals for oxygen, essential medicines, and other help.
Any such action by governments or state police would be treated as a contempt of court, the top court added.
“It is a matter of grave concerns to us. If citizens communicate their grievances either on the Internet or on social media, there cannot be a clampdown. We don’t want a clampdown of information. That’s the worst way of dealing with a crisis,” observed a bench headed by justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud.
The bench, which included justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, gave examples of various social media posts, asking for help when somebody needed an oxygen cylinder, or a bed in a hospital, or the drug remdesivir.
“To act against someone who is seeking help for oxygen or a medicine is against the basis precept,” said the bench, adding it wanted to caution all the state governments and their director generals of police (DGPs) against any action against those seeking help.
“Let this message go very clearly to all states and their DGPs, we will treat this as a contempt of this court of they want a clampdown on communication. Let everyone understand that we are not projecting anyone in a bad light but looking out for help,” remarked the court.
The bench concluded its discussion on the issue by making it unequivocal: “Let information flow freely. Let us hear the voices of our citizens and not a clampdown on them.”
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the Central government in the matter, agreed with the court, saying there could not be any action people who were already in distress, asking for help.
The court’s observations assume significance in the wake of a recent case lodged in Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi district against a 26-year-old man for allegedly spreading “false information” on social media over the supply of oxygen. Shashank Yadav made an appeal on Twitter for an oxygen cylinder for his critically ill grandfather, which the police later claimed was false. Earlier this week, Yadav was booked under the charges of the Epidemic Act and the Indian Penal Code for spreading false information with an intent to create panic in society. Yadav was taken to a police station for questioning, but was later let off.
In the backdrop of this case, activist Saket Gokhale this week moved the Allahabad high court seeking to restrain the UP government from taking coercive action against such persons who appealed for oxygen supply and other medical assistance on social media.
“Filing criminal cases against families of critical patients issuing SOS calls for oxygen on social media is a gross misuse of the powers of the state and is illegal coercive action that is being taken to maintain the image of the government and to clamp down on any criticism of their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and to present a fake picture that everything is hunky dory in the state,” stated Gokhale’s petition, which is yet to come up for a hearing before the high court.
“There is no clampdown or restriction on information, grievances communication on social media in the state. In fact, the state government’s various departments such as the police and others are tracking social media and also extending help, rescue, assistance. However, the state government will act on such people who will spread misinformation, ill-intent panic triggering or rumour-mongering,” said a senior UP government officer requesting anonymity.