Faking danger: on fighting fake news

Use of sedition law to fight fake news is an attempt to suppress inconvenient reports

May 19, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

The frequency with which journalists have been arrested since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic is quite disturbing. The reasons given by the police across India for arresting reporters and editors of news portals indicate that special provisions enacted to prevent the spread of rumour during disasters are being used to suppress reporting on political developments and possible governmental corruption. The most egregious case involves a criminal provision that governments invariably fall back upon to suppress dissent. The arrest of Dhaval Patel, editor of a news portal in Gujarat, on the serious charge of sedition, is a shocking instance of misuse of criminal laws to intimidate journalists. The case concerned an article speculating that State Chief Minister Vijay Rupani may be replaced by the BJP for his alleged inept handling of efforts to combat the pandemic. The report had even named a possible successor. It is befuddling how such a report could amount to sedition, regardless of whether the speculation is true. Oftentimes, the source of such speculation is a disgruntled section of the ruling party itself, and it is excessive to punish reportage with inadequate verification with arrest and prosecution for sedition. Mr. Patel has also been charged under Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act f or allegedly spreading panic through a false alarm concerning a disaster.

The Editors Guild of India has seen a “growing pattern” in the misuse of criminal laws to intimidate journalists. The concern is not misplaced. In the Andamans, a reporter was arrested for a social media post claiming people who had contacted a COVID-19 positive patient over phone were also being quarantined. In Coimbatore, police arrested a news portal founder following a report on alleged corruption in food distribution as part of the local administration’s efforts to handle the fallout of the pandemic. In Delhi, a reporter was summoned in response to a report that claimed that an audio clip purportedly containing a speech by the head of the Tablighi Jamaat was doctored. While asking a journalist to join the investigation may not by itself be illegal, the police should not use the power of summons to intimidate reporters or extract details of the source. There ought to be greater restraint while invoking special provisions relating to handling disasters and epidemics. Section 54 only penalises the spreading of panic relating to the severity or magnitude of a disaster — claiming falsely, for instance, that a dam had breached — and does not extend to mere incorrect reporting. In normal circumstances, the authorities ought to be content with getting their version or response to be carried by the news outlets concerned, and not seek to use the pandemic as an excuse to curb inconvenient reporting.

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