Why in news?

  • The Supreme Court on 31st March 2020 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.
  • This was in response 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.

Arguments put forth by the Ministry of Home Affairs

  • “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”.
  • 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.)

Court’s Views

  • In  view of balancing free press and the need to avoid panic in society during an unprecedented crisis – The court said: “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.”
  • The court also recommended – 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.
  • The court did 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.

Fake News issue

“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.”

What the Ministry of Home Affairs is going to do about it?

The Ministry of Home Affairs 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.

Other key highlights of the Report

  • The mass migration of the poor would defeat the preventive measures taken by the Central government.
  • There was no necessity for migrant workers to rush to their villages.
  • 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.

Why stop Migrant workers from returning in masses?

  • The mass migration had to be stopped to protect the rural population so far “untouched” by the virus.
  • 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.
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