Recently there was a wide circulation of one unverified social media post that refrains citizens to post any information or share any forwards related to coronavirus. At the time when the global population is engulfed with a pandemic situation, the propagation of correct information is the bedrock to counterbalance the misinformation and to keep the citizens updated with all the correct information. The aforesaid post highlighted that in view of the implementation of the Disaster Management Act, except the Government, no citizen is allowed to post any update or share any post related to coronavirus and it is a punishable offence. The post further informs the ‘Group Admins’ to update the above information in their respective groups. This information, after verification was, therefore, found to be false, baseless and concocted as the citizens’ freedom of expression no matter what the situation is cannot be muzzled.
However, there is no doubt that the in view of the outbreak of the coronavirus, the Government has invoked the Disaster Management Act, but the Act does not restrict the citizens to update or post any information about the disaster or epidemic which now, in fact, is in the form of coronavirus. But, on the other hand, Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act punishes an individual if found circulating a false warning on disaster or its severity, which has the potential to lead panic and fear-mongering among the general public and the same is a punishable offence for 2 years of imprisonment.
Considering the grave severity of the situation, however, it cannot be ruled out that freedom to propagate information has been misused by those who upload information without verifying from proper sources before uploading in various social media handles.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organisation (WHO), recently stated—
“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.”
On this aspect, the central government on 31 March has made a submission before the Supreme Court that the reason for the large exodus of the migrant workers in various parts of the country was triggered due to panic created by some fake/misleading news and social media shares, which portrayed that the lockdown will be continued for more than three months.
Certainly, the incident that led towards a large exodus of the migrant workers from one state to another has really rubbed salt on the wounds by further aggravating the deplorable situation. The detailed analysis conducted by Indian Express shows that one-third of the total COVID-19 cases in the country as on 6 April, is from 31 districts which received the highest number of migrant labourers.
The Supreme Court while entertaining the Writ Petition for redressal of grievances of migrant labourers in different parts of the country through an order dated 31.03.2020 also took note of the fact with regard to the spread of the fake news in which the court made the following remarks—
“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. 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” (emphasis supplied)
The Supreme Court has also given special emphasis to the mental health of the citizen, which can be affected in view of the false propagation of the information and therefore, directed the media to publish the official version about the various developments of coronavirus.
The fallout of the above stated fake news no doubt may have come out from the wrong interpretation of the Supreme Court order passed on 31.03.2020, but no matter what, press and media along with all individuals should take an extra precaution and verify the information only from authentic sources before uploading and posting it.
By Advocate Pramit Chhetri
The author is a lawyer based in the Supreme Court of India and hails from Malbassey, west Sikkim.
Views/Opinions expressed in the article or write up is purely of the author or writer and not of the Sikkim Chronicle. For any queries or contradictions, the author can be contacted in his/her email id.