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.
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.
But the mass migration of the poor would defeat the preventive measures taken by the Central government, the Ministry said. It said “there was no necessity for migrant workers to rush to their villages” when the Centre, fully conscious that no citizen should be deprived of basic amenities, had announced a ₹1.70 lakh crore package under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana to take care of their daily needs.
“Mass migration defeats the government’s preventive measures... They inevitably and unknowingly defeat the social-distancing norm,” Mr. Bhalla informed the court.
The mass migration had to be stopped to protect the rural population so far “untouched” by the virus. Some State governments had initially arranged buses for the migrant workers, but later decided not to allow further movement. “If infection penetrates rural India, the epidemic, which has taken the form of a pandemic, will manifest itself in a still severe form, making its unmanageable,” the report said.
At one point, the Ministry points out that census figures put the total migrant population at 4.14 crore, and now only 5 to 6 lakh persons, “by a very rough estimate”, were migrating back from the COVID-19-infected cities to their native places.
The report said 21,064 relief camps had been set up by the State governments and the Union Territories at the direction of the Central government and 6,66,291 persons had been sheltered. The Ministry said 22,88,279 stranded migrant workers, the poor, homeless and destitute persons were provided food.
The report said 15.25 lakh passengers were screened at airports, 40,000 people were screened at 12 major seaports and 65 minor ports and 20 lakh people were screened at all land borders. It said 3.48 lakh passengers were being monitored. The coronavirus testing facility had increased from just one laboratory in Pune in January 2020 to 118 laboratories across the country, with a capacity to undertake 15,000 tests a day. Besides, the government has coordinated with 47 private lab chains having more than 20,000 collection centres. Orders have been placed for 40,000 ventilators. The Centre said it had already instructed its Ministries and Departments, particularly the Defence Ministry, the Railways, paramilitary forces and the Ministry of Labour, to create dedicated COVID-19 blocks/hospitals. There were 1.35 lakh isolation beds on the ready and 637 train coaches across 17 different zones had been converted into quarantine wards. Essential commodities such as grain, salt, sugar, milk, fertilisers, petroleum products and coal were provided for. The Railways had loaded more than 3,435 racks with medical supplies in the last five days.
The government said it had started preparations against COVID-19 on the same day China went public about the disease. Thermal screenings at three major international airports had started on January 18. “Thermal screening of travellers began much before the first case was reported in India,” the Ministry highlighted.
A total of 21 travel advisories were issued, starting from the first one on January 30. The situation was monitored at the highest political and executive levels, led by the Prime Minister. The management efforts were coordinated by a Group of Ministers, led by the Union Health Minister, and a Joint Monitoring Group under the Director-General of Health Services provided technical support.
The report referred to how the public embraced the Janata Curfew . “People overwhelmingly expressed their gratitude to the frontline employees fighting coronavirus at 5 p.m. on the day of Janata Curfew by clapping, singing from their homes,” the Ministry said.