Authored by Shrirang Ashtaputre and Sanjana Kulkarni, students at ILS Law College, Pune.
Truth, according to many, is a subjective concept and in the era of self-autonomy and privacy, must be left up to the individuals to ponder upon and decide for themselves. However, for the sake of reaching a particular conclusion, every individual in a Constitutional Democracy like India is expected to apply his or her conscience to the pre-existing, unbiased and complete facts. A privilege provided by the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, Indians today possess the right to hold any belief of their choice, without imposing the same on the other, or contaminating someone else’s credence on a particular issue or even causing chaos in the public and harming the security of the state. While India provides for the Freedom of Press, further entailing the right to access information its circulation, it is expected to broadcast only the events, preferably in a simple, lucid manner for the perusal of the masses. Regarded as the fourth pillar of Democracy, the Press is not only the heart of social and political discourse but also a means of educating the public inter-alia about the acts or omissions of the Government and acts to ensure accountable governance herein. With such power vested with the Media of influencing the ideas and decisions of the masses, comes the duty of not interfering with the personal opinions of the readers or the viewers. Naturally, the role of the Media in crisis such as the prevailing Pandemic of COVID-19, which has claimed several casualties in the last 4 Months, becomes more complicated, especially with regards to revealing the numbers of the victims of this outbreak. In the Indian context, the Media, amidst this Public Health Emergency, awarded its support to the Government for ensuring that the masses were duly informed about its measures for curbing the spread and isolating the virus, which is duly applauded by the Authors. However, the Press, on a few instances did deviate from its duty of Responsible Journalism during the span of the 4 Lockdowns, which the Authors seek to divulge the readers through the medium of this Article.
The extent of responsible journalism in India during Covid-19
Ideally, journalists are expected to publish or circulate such content which is capable of inciting violence within the territorial jurisdiction of India and disturbing public order herein. The Press Council of India is vested with the task of ensuring that the Newspapers etc. do not publish such content which violates the standards of journalistic ethics or public taste, i.e., they are obliged to convey accurate incidences and not rumours as their task permits them to only collect and place news and not create one. And yet, a news reporter had the audacity of communicating about the resumption of long-distance railways, which had caused chaos amongst the migrant workers in Bandra, Mumbai in April 2020. While journalists were also arrested for misrepresenting facts before the masses, conveying unverified news, notice for the summons was issued against several reporters on the grounds of factual inaccuracies. Despite such precedents, the Press seems to have been ignorant towards the above-mentioned duties as it willingly disclosed the names of those individuals, who had attended the religious congregation of Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi and had later been infected. Highlighting this, the Petitioner, in Adv. M. Zainul v. Chief Secy., T.N. Govt., pleaded for the imposition of stringent regulations for ensuring the confidentiality of the infected attendees. It was alleged, that such acts on the part of the print and social media contradicted the Advisory issued by the Centre directing one and all (and hence the Media) to not disclose the names of the attendees of the said religious meeting and that of its guidelines appealing to the media from refraining all forms of Press, i.e., both electronic and order from spreading news potential of causing panic in the society. Citing the lack of authority to exercise power in this regard, the Madras High Court was compelled to appeal to such Journalists for practicing self-control. However, it rightly upheld its averments made in K. Narayanan v. Chief Secy., Govt. of T.N. wherein the Petition for releasing the names of the infected persons was dismissed in the interest of public peace and harmony.
In the wake of the Pandemic, the Government, instead of declaring a Constitutional Emergency, invoked the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 for ensuring united effort for curbing the spread of the virus. While this paved scope for imposing criminal liability upon those making false claims or issuing untrue warnings relating to any aspects of COVID-19 (at the provincial level, the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 was utilized for the said purpose), it implied that the fundamental rights of the individuals so enshrined in Part III of the Constitution of India, 1950 remained intact. However, on the grounds of public health alone, the Maharashtra Government halted the home-delivery of Newspaper for ensuring adherence to “social distancing norms” stringently – online media did assure access to information including daily updates on COVID-19 and therefore, no right was per se violated. Nevertheless, the Calcutta High Court sought to balance the demands of the desperate and helpless Government for curbing the spread of rumours for avoiding agitation with the clueless and the terrified masses, by permitting Journalism in all its forms but inviting them to curb misinterpretation of any content available in the public domain, especially the orders of the Courts issued with regards to the Pandemic. Quite firmly, the High Court of Karnataka directed the Press to abstain from misquoting the Judgments of the Courts for maintaining harmony in the society and permitting their proper execution in the interest of public health.
“Fake News”, so understood as false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, has threatened all mechanisms of the Government and each one of them unites for curbing its spread, owing to the damage it can cause if left unregulated. Especially, such an approach is necessary during this phase of the Pandemic since 28% of posts on social media regarding the developments in this regard were generated from unverified sources. Due to the increased access to the internet, such information spreads like wildfire and is capable of causing public disorder, a reason why the Indian State utilizes its every means for clamping down upon its authors or devisers. Notably, the Bombay High Court upheld the State Government’s resolve for holding social media group administrators accountable for spreading misinformation related to COVID-19 on their platforms – this, however, isn’t a concrete measure, considering the amount of unsubstantiated reports prepared and circulated daily.
After the imposition of the 1st Lockdown, the Supreme Court issued directives to the Centre for halting the spread of rumours about COVID-19 extending to the dissemination of correct information by journalists, thereby allowing free discussion with regards to the Pandemic. The aforesaid verdicts are examples that a few journalists maliciously presented such news, which not only affected the masses but also tainted the efforts of all those sincere and hard-working reporters that toiled day and night and risked their lives in such crucial times for catering to the masses about daily updates. Most importantly, they broke the very trust vested by the Judiciary in the Media fraternity and highlighted the absence of stringent measures in the country for punishing Fake News – it is high time that a special law to the effect of curbing it in the country be devised without having to impose an “internet ban” for curtailing the spread of such news, for balancing the freedom of Press with the maintenance of public order in the society.