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Coronavirus Lockdown: Fake news and panic driven migration caused untold misery to migrant labourers, Supreme Court [Read Order]

"It is not possible for us to overlook this menace of fake news", the Supreme Court observed, while cautioning that the media should not publish unverified news capable of causing panic.

Meera Emmanuel

The Supreme Court today took serious note of the role played by fake news in allegedly provoking the en masse movement of migrant labourers in various places during the national lockdown in place to curb the spread of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19).

The turn of events also prompted the Court to today to advise that the media guard against the publication of false news by relying on official information.

In this regard, the Court noted that 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 added in its order,

"We do 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.”
Supreme Court

While the matter concerning the welfare of stranded migrant labourers came up for hearing today, Chief Justice SA Bobde even remarked fake news would be more harmful than the virus itself.

In the order subsequently passed by the Division Bench comprising of CJI Bobde and Justice L Nageswara Rao, the Court further made note to record,

"The migration of large number of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lock down 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.”
Supreme Court

The issue of fake news was also raised by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta during the hearing today, who noted that panic is the inevitable outcome of the spread of fake news, particularly given the serious nature of the pandemic COVID-19.

The Status Report filed by the Centre before the Supreme Court had in fact mentions the issue of fake news to be the “single most unmanageable hindrance” in managing the present health crisis.

To counter the same, the Government also submitted that it will set up a separate unit to answer citizen queries and provide real time and true facts, keeping the response time in mind depending on the contents of the query. The Supreme Court also directed that such a mechanism be set up within 24 hours time.

All the same, the Government had raised concern that, “Despite all efforts, fake news/ inaccurate news and panic material being circulated/telecast, whether knowingly or inadvertently, still remains a challenge even in difficult times like the present time.

In view of the same, the Supreme Court had also being urged to, "issue a direction that no electronic/print media/web portal or social media shall print/publish or telecast anything without first ascertaining the true factual position from the separate mechanism provided by the Central Government.”

While it admitted that there are provisions in the Disaster Management Act and the Indian Penal Code to penalise such fake news or publication of material raising false alarm, the Government had added that a direction by the Supreme Court would nevertheless be useful. In this regard, the Status report had said,

“… an appropriate direction from this Hon’ble Court would protect the country from any potential and inevitable consequence resulting from a false alarm having the potential of creating panic in a section of the society.”

Central Government

The Bench, in turn, today made note to emphasise that the media is expected to be circumspect while carrying reports, preferably relying on the official information released by the Government. The Bench further cautioned,

“In particular, 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."
Supreme Court

[Read the Order]

Alakh Alok Srivastava vs Union of India - SC Order - March 31, 2020.pdf
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