Coronavirus | Supreme Court order to media in consonance with Disaster Management Act

Media can be directed to carry advisories regarding threatening disaster situations

Updated - April 02, 2020 01:40 pm IST

Published - April 02, 2020 03:01 am IST - NEW DELHI

The Supreme Court order on Tuesday to media outlets to “refer to and publish the official version” about COVID-19 developments is in the spirit of the provisions of the Disaster Management Act of 2005.

Section 67 of the 2005 Act empowers the government to direct the media to “carry any warning or advisories regarding any threatening disaster situation or disaster”. The Act mandates that the media outlets should comply with the direction. Further Section 54 of the Act makes the circulation of false alarm, causing panic, a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment up to a year. It also says disobeying a public authority attracts punishment under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.

However, the Act, on the other hand, does not contemplate an arrangement whereby the media – print, electronic and social media – first ascertain the “factual position” from the government side before publishing or airing “anything” on COVID-19. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had pressed for such a directive from the Supreme Court on March 31 in the “larger interest of justice.”

The MHA, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, submitted that fake news that the lockdown would last more than three months caused panic among migrant workers, leading to their mass exodus to their hometowns.

Union Home Secretary A.K. Bhalla, in a status report, explained to the court that “any deliberate or inaccurate” reporting by the media, particularly web portals, has a “serious and inevitable potential of causing panic in a large section of the society” and harms the entire nation.

But a Bench led by Chief Justice Sharad A. Bobde refused to interfere with “free discussion about the pandemic.” Instead, it set about to facilitate what is contemplated under Section 67 of the Act. The court ordered the government to issue bulletins on COVID-19 every day and asked the media to, in turn, report the contents of the bulletins. In short, the government would provide timely information and the media would report it accurately without fail, as is mandated under the 2005 Act.

The Bench appealed to the media to “maintain a strong sense of responsibility and ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated” while reporting on COVID-19. It took a leaf from a statement by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General, World Health Organisation (WHO), that “we are not just fighting an epidemic; we are fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”

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