At least six Deputy Commissioners in Haryana have imposed a ban on social media news platforms stating that “dissemination of unverified and misleading news from such platforms may disturb tranquillity in the society and may adversely affect the mental health of common man” during the coronavirus pandemic. Activists in the state objected to the move terming the curbs an “undeclared emergency” and an attempt to “silence the voice of social media”.
All the social media news platforms based on WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Telegram, YouTube, Instagram, Public App and LinkedIn come under the ban ordered by the DCs of Sonipat, Kaithal, Charkhi Dadri, Karnal, Narnaul and Bhiwani.
The Karnal DC has imposed the ban for 15 days, while the remaining five have imposed the restrictions “till further orders”.
The first such order was issued by the Charkhi Dadri DC exercising his powers as district magistrate on May 12 this year, while the latest order came from the Karnal DC on July 10.
“No social media platform in Sonipat has taken permission to function as a news channel. They neither got registration from the Directorate of Information and Public Relations of Haryana government nor from Commissioner of Information and Broadcasting Ministry of the Union government. There is a possibility of (spread of) fear among a large section of the society in this abnormal circumstance of coronavirus pandemic because of intentional or unintentional fake news or wrong reporting from the news channels of social media…So it is necessary to get registered from any regulatory body for functioning of a social media platform as a news channel,” mentioned the order issued by Sonipat DC Shyam Lal Punia on June 16.
The restrictions have been imposed under Section 188 of the IPC, Disaster Management Act 2005 and Epidemic Disease Act, 1957. It has also been highlighted the violation of these laws may invite jail term and penalty too.
However, a human rights activist Sukhvinder Nara has termed the curbs as “arbitrary and unconstitutional”.
“Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution gives guarantee of freedom of speech and expression which includes freedom of media. The action of authorities is violation of this constitutional provision. The DCs concerned have quoted an order of the Supreme Court while imposing the restrictions but the apex court did not order any ban on the social media news platforms,” says Nara, a lawyer by profession.
He adds: “A careful perusal of the SC judgment, as cited in the ban order, reveals that the apex court has merely asked the central government and state governments to stop the fake news. It seems that the district magistrates have misinterpreted the SC order and imposed the ban without cogent reasons.”
Nara has also sent a memorandum to the state Chief Secretary stating the “action has been taken by the authorities even without collecting any data to know whether the social media news are spreading any fake news related to Covid-19”.
“In case any social media news channel is publishing fake news on any issues, then the officers are competent to get registered FIRs against the erring news channels, but they don’t have any authority to ban the operation of the social media news platforms,” he added.
Expressing similar sentiments, RTI activist P P Kapoor said, “It appears that the administration is misusing the Disaster Management Act to cover its failures. In the absence of such channels, the administration won’t be able to get a clue about the bitter truth of local level issues.”
Sharing an episode of Karnal where the social media helped the administration in stopping the rumours about the coronavirus, Haryana Patrakar Sangh president K B Pandit said, “There were speculations in Karnal that the vegetables won’t be available after introduction of the lockdown. With these rumours, the people rushed to the local vegetable mandis. But the local social media news platforms prominently highlighted the appeal of local administration in which it was stated that there won’t be any shortage of vegetables even during the lockdown.”
However, justifying the ban order, Shyam Lal Punia, who had first issued such an order as district magistrate of Charkhi Dadri, said, “Checks and balances are necessary for such platforms too. Some type of registration should be there for such platforms also to bring a sense of accountability on their part too.”
“These platforms shared details of the corona patients along with their names on social media. The lists of patients were wrong. Even we don’t reveal the name of the patients,” claimed Punia, while speaking to The Indian Express.
Though, K B Pandit says sometimes even the officials reveal the identity of the coronavirus patients so “social media should not be blamed”
“Currently, there is no system for registration of social media news platforms,” added Pandit.
Meanwhile, the web-portal journalists led by Pandit Saturday met Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar in Karnal seeking his intervention into the matter.
“The Chief Minister has assured that a policy for the social media will be finalised within 48 hours adding the government would try to give assistance to web-portals too. I believe criteria will be soon finalised for recognition of the social media journalists and advertisements to such platforms,” said the veteran journalist.
On July 6, the Haryana Cabinet had decided to introduce Digital Advertisement Policy, 2020 noting new platforms have emerged in the digital media.
“Many ancillary checks and balances have been incorporated in the policy to ensure transparency and accountability of websites, new apps and also ensure content integrity,” the government had stated then.
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