The Supreme Court yesterday directed media outlets to publish the government’s official version of developments pertaining to the coronavirus outbreak.
This order has caused great consternation among the media fraternity. Many ask if they’ll still be able to report independently, or simply reproduce the government’s version of the news.
“This is the first time the Supreme Court has passed such an order,” said Anuradha Bhasin, the executive editor of Kashmir Times.
Speaking to Newslaundry, Bhasin said the order is ambiguous on two fronts. First, it doesn’t mention whether the media is supposed to only print the daily bulletin. Second, it doesn’t clarify if the media can print stories and get a government version as well.
Other journalists, however, speculate that this is the first step among many being rolled out to curb independent reportage.
Media houses to print official bulletin
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court was hearing a plea that sought welfare for the migrant workers stranded across the country in the wake of the 21-day lockdown. The plea was filed by Alakh Alok Srivastava.
The bench, comprising Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and Justice L Nageswara Rao, observed: “The migration of large numbers of labourers working in the cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lockdown 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.”
In its order released late last evening, the bench noted: “It is therefore not possible for us to overlook this menace of fake news either by electronic, print or social media.”
While adding a disclaimer that it did not “intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic”, the division bench directed the media to “refer to and publish the official version about the developments”.
“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,” the court’s order read.
It continued: “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.”
Curbs free press
Speaking to Newslaundry, several mediapersons expressed dismay over the order.
The Wire's Siddharth Vardarajan said the top court's order was “unfortunate”. Referring to the Centre's request seeking its prior approval before the media printed anything, Vardarajan said he was just glad the apex court order did not completely accede to the request. However, he added, the order can also be interpreted as “giving sanction for prior censorship of content in the media”.
“As media persons we verify, and cross-verify our facts before we print it. We don’t rely on fake news,” said Patricia Mukhim, editor of Shillong Times. “On social media, everyone is a journalist. Why penalise us?”
She added: “People don’t even read newspapers anymore. They rely more on WhatsApp news. We are already working in a constrained space, why constrain us more? The order is only because the system cannot curb fake news. Please show what fake news created panic.”
Mukhim, however, acknowledged that one cannot curb social media: “It has its pros.”
But how do you balance the real with the fake, she asked. “We are in a difficult situation now. The Supreme Court should have taken more time to understand the genesis of the news that triggered the panic and figure why it (the exodus) happened. Why blame the media? Everyone wants to know what’s happening in these trying times and how they will survive in this situation.”
Referring to an where a youth who worked in a restaurant committed suicide when he lost his job due to the lockdown, Mukhim said this is a time of panic. “The Supreme Court order should have been more restrained, and the court should do more research as to why this happened and why the labourers panicked.”
Bhasin, on the other hand, called this the worst form of censorship. “The order is completely absurd. The court is virtually asking the media to be stenographers of the government.”
She continued: “Usually, professional media tries to sift fake from the real. It goes through several layers of verification. Off late, it has become extremely difficult to get official reactions from the government. Despite that, the professional media is doing a great job. It is bringing stories of distress and talking about what the government is doing — good and bad.”
Bhasin referred to a Prime Minister Modi had with a few journalists before the lockdown, where he had asked them to print only positive news surrounding the coronavirus.
“The media’s job is not only to highlight achievements, but act as a link between the government and the ordinary people. It also points out what’s going wrong with the system,” she said.
Fake news might cause panic in society
The top court’s direction was bolstered after the Centre expressed its fear that “fake and inaccurate reporting” might cause “panic in the society”. The Narendra Modi government sought directions from the court that no media outlet should print, publish or telecast anything on the pandemic without first ascertaining the facts with the government.
On Monday, the top court had issued notice to the Centre and directed Tushar Mehta, the Solicitor-General of India, to file a status report on steps and measures taken by the Centre to control the exodus and the pandemic.
The Centre said in its : “In an unprecedented situation of this nature, any deliberate or unintended fake or inaccurate reporting either in electronic, print or social media and, particularly, in web portals has a serious and inevitable potential of causing panic in large sections of the society.”
The report 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 a 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.”
Even though “creating panic” is a criminal offence under the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, “appropriate direction from the top court” would be welcome to “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,” the Centre said.