Courts offer respite against gags on media, social media

On April 30, the apex court warned state governments and the police against clamping down on the spread of information or calls for help through social media from citizens affected by coronavirus.

A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat was hearing a suo motu case taken by the Court to deal with Covid-19 related issues. Any move by any state to punish citizens who take to the social media to seek help for oxygen cylinders, drugs, beds, etc., would attract contempt of court, warned the bench.

Referring to threats of coercive action against people putting SOS calls on social media, the bench said: “We want to make it very clear that if citizens communicate their grievances on social media and internet then it cannot be said it is wrong information.” It further said: “Let a strong message go to all the states and DGP of states.”

Justice Chandrachud stated that the free flow of information during the 1970 famine enabled the government to tackle the problem effectively as compared to a clampdown during the 1918 epidemic. Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta said the litigation was non-adversarial. “As an officer of the court, I fully agree with what Your Lordships have said.”

On the plight of medical workers, nurses and doctors, the Court said it is not enough to declare them “Covid Warriors”. The Court asked the centre what was being done for them on the ground. “What is being done for shortage of medical staff? How are doctors being safeguarded and treated for Covid-19?”

The Punjab & Haryana High Court recently commended the press and social media for their stellar role in aiding the government and needy citizens during the pandemic. The single bench of Justice Arvind Singh Sangwan said that the Fourth Pillar had “done exceptionally commendable job” in the hour of crisis. The observations were made by the Court in an order passed on a plea seeking anti­cipatory bail in a case registered under Sections 295-A, 298, 153-A, 153-B, 505, 149, 124-A and 120-B of the IPC.

In Amethi (UP), the police lodged an FIR on April 27 against a 26-year-old youth for allegedly spreading “false information” on social media over the supply of oxygen. The case was registered under Sections 269 IPC and 505(1)(B) at Ramganj police station. Section 269 IPC deals with a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life) and Section 505(1)(B) deals with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquillity.

In response to this, activist Saket Gokhale approached the Allahabad High Court seeking to restrain the UP government from taking action against people who appeal for oxygen and other medical requirements on social media. He also sought protection of independent volunteers who were helping Covid-19 patients and their families by collecting information on oxygen and medicine availability on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp.

It is pertinent to note that UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on April 24 asked officials to take action under the National Security Act and seize the property of individuals who spread “rumours” and propaganda on social media and try to “spoil the atmosphere”.

In a similar case, the Delhi High Court on May 3 dismissed a petition seeking “restrictions” on airing of news related to the Covid-19 crisis. The bench said there can be no curbs on the media as long as the information they were putting out was correct. The PIL had alleged that news channels were airing “very negative” visuals and stories of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was causing a “sense of insecurity towards life” among people.

But the bench of Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice Jasmeet Singh said: “We see no reason to entertain the petition.” The Court said that telecasting of news depends on the news itself. “Not a single violation has been pointed out,” the Court noted. “Whenever news about death is published, it cannot be said that it is negative news. It is a wrong notion in the mind of the petitioner,” it said.

While many feel that showing too much Covid-19 news is affecting them psychologically, the fact is that these need to be shown so that people can be on guard against this rampaging disease. The use of social media during these times can be seen in two ways—it helps deliver assistance to those in need of drugs and oxygen and disseminates awareness and knowledge to the general population. At the same time, a huge amount of misinformation too is there, which can threaten one’s health.

Read Also: Contempt proceedings will not help Delhi get oxygen, comments Justice Chandrachud

Incidentally, the announcement of the first Coronavirus victim was made through various social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and various websites. The fact remains that through social media platforms, guidelines, protocols and standard operating procedures can be shared and become of immense value. Many respected doctors too have taken to Zoom meetings in an effort to spread knowledge and give guidance about this disease.

Therefore, instead of curbing reports on the pandemic, governments would do well to put their house in order first. If not, there are always the proactive courts to turn to.

—By Shivam Sharma and India Legal News Service
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