Fake News or Free Speech: How the Government attempted to muzzle the media
Yesterday, the government tried asking the Supreme Court to muzzle the media in India, citing concerns on panic around the pandemic. The Supreme Court refused. But it took two steps forward and one step back.
Google this: “government media supreme court coronavirus” and these are your two top results:
Published within four hours of each other, each headline tells a very different story. But both are true.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court both denied a government request for censorship, and also curtailed the information we are allowed to disseminate.
Here’s what really happened:
As Live Law reports it, “The Central Government sought a direction from the Supreme Court that no media outlet should print, publish or telecast anything on COVID-19 without first ascertaining facts from the mechanism provided by the government.”
This came in the context of the exodus of migrant workers that occurred last week. PILs were filed in the SC seeking directions for the welfare of these migrant workers, and for measures to control the pandemic transmission.
The Centre filed a status report in response. The affidavit, among other things, said,
"Considering the very nature of the infectious disease which the world is struggling to deal with, any panic reaction by any section of the society based upon such reporting would not only be harmful for such situation but would harm the entire nation.
It is, therefore, in the largest interest of justice that when this court has taken cognizance, this court is pleased 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."
What the government asked for is prior censorship, a vetting of all media posts and publications by the government itself - meaning a suspension of the freedom of the press.
The government demanded control over the media.
The Supreme Court, on the face of it, denied this. But the order passed had the following:
“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.”
The Supreme Court also said, "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”.
“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 order uploaded in the night on the court website said.
The bench quoted Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General, World Health Organisation (WHO), as saying recently: “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.”
This judgement leaves us neither here nor there. It’s not a rallying call for the protection of free speech and the press, nor is it the imposition of a complete government control over the media.
It is, quite simply, a curtailing of the people’s right to information through the press, by creating a single narrative of facts - the version published by the government.
The key takeaway? The Supreme Court asked the Centre to set up a portal within 24 hours for the dissemination of real time information on the coronavirus pandemic to counter the panic being spread through fake news.
The majority of news each consumer will receive will now be limited to this official version.
Here’s the silver lining: The bench asked the government to ensure that duties of managing the shelter homes, where migrants are being kept, are entrusted to volunteers and not to the police and there should not be any use of force or intimidation. It asked the government that there must be adequate provisions of drinking water, food, beds and medicines in these shelters.
The government, it noted, would within 24 hours ensure that trained counsellors and community group leaders belonging to all faiths will visit the shelter homes and deal with any consternation that the migrants might be going through.
Silver lining aside, these are dangerous times. Not just for our personal health, but also the health of our democracy. A robust and critical fourth estate is one of the pillars that hold up our fundamental rights. This constant chipping away at it by the government is simply sinister.