Shooting the messenger

During a pandemic, a government cannot be permitted to undermine hard-won democratic rights

April 06, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 12:56 am IST

While the economic cost of the pandemic has been discussed widely, not as much attention has been paid to the lurking danger of the shrinking of democratic spaces. The most explicit manifestation of this global malaise can be seen in Hungary now, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán recently secured parliamentary approval for a set of draconian measures including jail terms for spreading misinformation and no clear time limit to a state of emergency that allows him to rule by decree. The Opposition parties’ demand for a sunset clause on the legislation was brushed aside by the ruling party, which has a brute majority in parliament.

The editorial in this newspaper, “Uncritical endorsement” (April 2), pointed out how the Indian Supreme Court has uncritically accepted the official narrative that “fake news” about the duration of the lockdown being “three months” caused a panic reaction from migrant workers across States. As the editorial said, neither the Court nor the government acknowledged the real factors such as “the short notice of just four hours for the lockdown to take effect, the lack of planning and coordination with the States, the fears of the people about being left without cash and running out of food, and worries about their families back home.” In the same case, the Union government sought a direction to restrain the media from reporting or publishing “anything” without ascertaining the factual position from the government. It was an Indian Orbán moment where only the official version, however limited the information may be and with its inherent elements of propaganda, would have legal sanction.

Role of the media

The plea of the Union government indicates a democratic deficit in the executive in realising the role of the media during a pandemic and the necessity for a credible information ecosystem. While the apex court upheld the right to free discussion about COVID-19, it also directed the media to refer to and publish the official version of the developments in order to avoid inaccuracies and large-scale panic. Herein lies the catch. It is a fact that fake news and deliberate misleading of the public happens from the top, and often through people who wield power. This fact was established in studies on fake news conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford.

Claims by the AYUSH Ministry

Let’s look at how the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy) has performed during this crisis. Early last week, the Minister of State for AYUSH, Shripad Naik, said that Ayurveda and Homeopathy medicines cured the U.K.’s Prince Charles of SARS-CoV-2 and asserted that his recovery only “validates our age-old practice since thousands of years”. But the Prince’s spokesperson rejected the claim. In an e-mail to The Indian Express , The Clarence House spokesperson said, “This information is incorrect. The Prince of Wales followed the medical advice of the NHS (National Health Service) in the U.K. and nothing more.”

The Press Council of India issued a statement soon after this, which read: “The Press Council of India advises the print media to stop publicity and advertisement of AYUSH-related claims for COVID-19 treatment in order to prevent dissemination of misleading information about AYUSH drugs and services in view of the emerging threat in the country due to the pandemic.”

In this context we should remind the government and the apex court some considered views about a free press. Nearly three decades ago, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen emphatically said that “in the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.” A study by UNESCO says, “Press freedom and good governance are not mutually exclusive. They support each other while promoting a country’s economic and human development.”

The Ground Zero report in this newpaper, “The long march to uncertainty” (April 4), reveals the hollowness of the Government of India’s submission to the Supreme Court and documents the plight of migrant labourers, who are the backbone of the Indian economy. The hope is that the courts recognise that during a crisis such as a pandemic, a government cannot be permitted to undermine hard-won democratic rights and that a free and independent media is a basic need in a democracy.

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