Accepting the Centre’s submission that mass movement of migrant workers during the lockdown was the result of “panic created by fake news” that it would continue for more than three months, the Supreme Court Tuesday directed the media to “refer to and publish the official version” of the developments.
Underlining that “we do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic”, the bench of Chief Justice of India S A Bobde and L Nageswara Rao 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 migration of large number of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lockdown would continue for more than three months. Such panic-driven migration has caused untold suffering to those who believed and acted on such news.
In fact, some have lost their lives in the process. It is therefore not possible for us to overlook this menace of fake news either by electronic, print or social media,” the bench said.
It asked the Centre to make active within 24 hours “a daily bulletin… through all media avenues including social media and forums to clear the doubts of people as submitted by the Solicitor General of India”.
The reference was to Solicitor General Tushar Mehta’s submission that the government, in order to deal with fake news on the COVID-19 situation, was in the process of setting up a separate unit headed by a “Joint Secretary level officer in the Ministry of Health and consisting of eminent specialist doctors from recognised institutions like AIIMS etc to answer every query of citizens and to provide real time and true facts” to people.
Mehta said the modalities will be worked out immediately and the government will publicise details of the portal that can be approached for “genuine information”.
Incidentally, similar assertions were made in a status report filed before the bench by Union Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla. This was in response to two petitions being heard by the bench. The petitions by advocates Alakh Alok Srivastava and Richa Bansal sought directions to ensure the welfare of the migrant labourers who have been walking to their homes in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from their workplaces in states like Delhi.
The Supreme Court said Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 provides for punishment to a person who makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic and that such person shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.
The bench also quoted WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, saying “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”.
Appearing for the Centre, Mehta referred to the financial package announced by the government for the welfare of the poor and said there was “no need” for such mass movement of workers since the package had taken care of their concerns. He attributed the development to panic created by fake news and social media messages and sought directions to check this.
The migration “defeats the very object of the preventive measures” and “put their lives and lives of others in danger”, Mehta said, adding that if these migrants reach their villages, “there is extreme and most likely possibility of their carrying” the infection to rural India “which has remained untouched so far”.
He told the court “as on 11 am, there is no person walking on the roads in an attempt to reach his/ her hometown/ village”.
The court expressed satisfaction with the measures taken by the government to check the spread of COVID-19 “at this stage”. It asked police and other authorities to understand the anxiety and fear of the migrants and deal with them in a humane manner.
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