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The Karnataka High Court recently directed the Union Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and the state's Department of Information and Public Relations to consider a representation seeking financial assistance for families of media persons amid the COVID-19 crisis.
While passing the direction, the Bench of Justices BV Nagarathna and Suraj Govindaraj acknowledged that media personnel were putting themselves at risk in order to disseminate information.
Karnataka High Court
The Court was dealing with a plea urging directions to the Central and state governments to provide compensation of Rs 5,00,000 to the families of media and newspaper delivery persons in the event of their death due to COVID-19.
According to the petitioners, many media houses did not properly maintain social distancing and the reporters who are on the ground lack basic personal protective equipment when they go out to cover news relating to COVID-19.
While discharging their duties, media persons are put to great risk, the petitioners submitted. It was further pointed out that recently, in Mumbai, about fifty two media personnel were tested positive for COVID-19 and had to be quarantined.
The petitioners also argued that the press and media should be considered as essential services, as they are the eyes and ears of the government and are the means of disseminating information to the public.
While the Central and state governments had announced schemes for ‘Corona Warriors’, including medical personnel, police etc. no such scheme had been announced for media personnel, the petitioners informed the Court.
Therefore, citing the plight of media persons, a representation had been addressed to the Union I&B Ministry and the Department of Information, Karnataka seeking financial assistance to families of such journalists.
Opposing the plea, the Additional Solicitor General contended that the petitioners had rushed to the High Court even before their representation could be considered by the governments.
It was further submitted that it was for the Union and state governments to decide how compensation schemes must be extended during the current pandemic. The ASG argued that the same is purely a matter of policy and Article 14 of the Constitution does not apply in the instant case.
While compensation schemes were declared for police and medical personnel offering essential services during the COVID-19 lockdown, it was contended that the role of media persons cannot be equated with that of the former.
Another line of argument adopted by the ASG was that if any journalist is infected by the virus and later succumbs to it, then his/her family could seek relief from the employer of the deceased and not from the state or the Union government, as no scheme for the same had been announced.
After hearing the contentions, the Court directed the governments to consider the petitioners' representation.
The Court further clarified that the directions only deal with any untoward death of any journalist or the media person that may occur during the COVID-19 crisis.
Contrary to the Centre's submission, the Court opined that the role of the media cannot be undermined during the pandemic.
"We think that the role of journalists and media personnel cannot be underestimated nor undermined during this pandemic and just like the police doctors, nurses, and Government personnel and others who are carrying out essential duties, in the same way, the journalists and other media personnel are on the filed so as to disseminate and convey correct information to the citizens of the Country about the impact of the pandemic and also other information from the world over..."
On a different note, the Bench added that the media also had an ancillary responsibility to only report correct facts and avoid exaggerated reporting to create fear in the minds of people.
"It is also necessary to observe that in times such as the present, where there is a crisis in public health, the media should be responsible to report the true and correct facts and not exaggerate or sensationalise the same so as to create a fear or panic amongst the people who come across such information. Dissemination of information must be truthful and communicated without any exaggeration and not with the object of sensationalizing or creating a fear psychosis amongst the people."
With these observations, the Court proceeded to dispose of the matter. The respondents have been asked to consider the representation within two months.
Advocate Sunil H Kumar appeared for the petitioners in the matter. ASG Nargund M B appeared for the Union Ministry of Information & Broadcasting.