The state government, while seeking disposal of a petition filed against its earlier order to ban door-to-door circulation of newspapers in the state, strongly defended the move before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court on Thursday.
In an affidavit filed before HC, the government said that the April 18 order, which it later annulled for parts of the state other than Mumbai and Pune, was “an exceptional policy decision taken under extraordinary situation and exceptional circumstances, as an important temporary measure to control the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, using overriding provisions of the special laws made for such scenarios”.
Therefore, the intention of the order was in the interest of the well-being and safety of citizens, it added.
The state further said that the order was judicious, very fair and transparent and neither arbitrary nor permanent in nature. So, the instant petition be disposed of, it submitted.
The HC had directed the state on April 20 to file its reply to a petition filed by Nagpur Union of Working Journalists and Maharashtra Union of Working Journalists against the ban, describing it as gagging of the freedom of press and expression.
In its affidavit, the government stated, “Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 empowers the state to undertake special measures and prescribe regulations in extraordinary situation. Experts say coronavirus can stay on various surfaces for considerable time and newspaper is something that will be passed by hand-to-hand by various people, which may increase chances of infection.”
“Newspapers cannot be considered as an essential item, hence, comparison with food delivery is not fair. Readers can get newspapers on Internet. Responsibility of sanitisation of food delivery boys is taken by the deliverer. No such control on paper delivery boys is guaranteed. One can’t determine which area they come from, which could also be a hotspot,” the government said, adding that “circulation of non-essential items could lead to spread of the disease to green zone areas”.
Referring to it subsequently changing the order to allow distribution of newspapers except in Mumbai and Pune, the government said, “Exemption will not apply to containment zones in places where it is allowed and that permission is subject to delivery boys wearing masks and observing social distancing.”
Arguing that the principal aim of the move was to control and reduce spread of COVID-19, the government said, “No restriction was imposed on the functioning of electronic and print media but only circulation of newspapers was restricted.”
Objecting to the affidavit, the petitioners’ counsels, Deven Chauhan and Nikhil Kirtane, urged the court to disapprove the contentions justifying “muzzling of fundamental rights of the media”. The Aurangabad bench of the HC had also taken a suo motu cognisance of the issue as also the Press Council of India, which found the ban an “assault on the freedom of press”, they added.
Justice Nitin Sambre observed that since the main grievance raised by petitioners has been redressed after the state withdrew the earlier order, the matter will be heard next on June 15.