Potentially life-saving information needs to be updated and disseminated with utmost haste and cannot be contingent upon publication in a central bulletin.

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.”
– George Bernard Shaw

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the nation to a halt and our lives to a standstill. The pandemic is scary due to our lack of knowledge, combined with its uncertainty and unpredictability. It is this fear that needs to be kept in check, for it has the potential to be equally dangerous as a contagion.

While the media cannot tell the public at large what to think, it certainly sets the agenda for public debate and dialogue. In such times, the role of the media, being the Fourth Estate is all the more important and it is essential that the media act responsibly to curb unsubstantiated rumours and not to propagate fear amongst the public at large.
The present Government is of the opinion that the mass exodus was triggered by fake news and that stifling of information is the only solution. This is evident from their submissions before the Supreme Court, wherein the Government sought directions that no media outlet could print, publish or telecast anything in relation to the pandemic, without “first ascertaining the true factual position from the separate mechanism provided by the Central Government”. The making of such a request is indicative of the government’s apprehension that the true extent of the pandemic be not revealed to the public. Journalists, social activists and even the public who have dared to be openly critical of the Central Government and PM Modi have been dealt with an iron fist. It is not uncommon nowadays for people to be arrested over tweets. Yet now that same hand seems to be shaky and requires court sanction.
On 31 March, the Supreme Court passed an order issuing certain directions to media houses that unverified news be not disseminated; with the official verification coming by way of a daily bulletin to be published by the Government.
The menace of fake news has proven extremely difficult to tackle worldwide, but such a blanket ban on unverified reporting, with the sole verification coming from a daily bulletin is also not the need of the hour. Firstly, it fails to appreciate that it was a host of factors that contributed to the mass exodus, such as loss of work, threats by landlords, uncertainties of shelter and future income and the general unpredictability of the manner in which the lockdown was hastily imposed, giving almost no time to these migrant workers to plan for the times ahead.
Secondly, this also fails to take into account a fundamental difference that the media as a profession holds a high degree of accountability to the public and the Government itself, and cannot be equated with the disseminators of fake news from WhatsApp University. Editors of media houses are duty bound to verify facts before publication. There already exists ample legal recourse to take action against any media house for offences under Sections 499 IPC (Defamation), 501 IPC (Printing or engraving defamatory matter), 502 IPC (Sale of defamatory matter), 153 IPC (Provocation with intent to cause riot), 153A IPC (Acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony), 153B IPC (Imputation, assertions prejudicial to national-integration). Additionally, given the present pandemic situation, action can also be taken under Section 54 of the National Disaster Management Act, 2005 (Making or circulating a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity/magnitude leading to panic). Unfortunately, the present directions make providing concrete answers to unsubstantiated rumours all the more difficult as now the entire media has to wait for an official update.
Thirdly, this also poses a unique problem since the Government now has blanket discretion to clarify and respond to certain news, and, at the same time, it can choose to ignore that which is equally ripe for publication but which could cause embarrassment to the administration. The recent inhumane actions of spraying of migrant workers with a disinfectant in Uttar Pradesh is but one such example. Potentially life-saving information regarding deaths, the spread of the diseases and especially the hotspots and areas in which spikes in cases are being observed need to be updated and disseminated promptly and with utmost haste and cannot be contingent upon publication in a Central Bulletin.
However, it must also be noted that the Indian Media is not guilt free. It has also often given in to such rumour-mongering and speculation. The labelling of Covid-19 as a “Chinese Virus” and the use of such terms such as “Corona Jihad”, which have absolutely no basis or foundation, is more worrisome and has started to create an atmosphere of xenophobia, bigotry and communalism, and must be nipped in the bud. It is high time everyone understands that the virus affects every religion, ethnicity, caste and creed with the same reckless abandon and name calling and blame gaming will help absolutely nobody.
Then, there is also the problem of underreporting of Covid-19 cases. Many believe that the true extent is far worse, but we are simply not in a position to ascertain the same due to lack of testing, and later on adequate reporting. China has especially attracted international criticism for what many see as gross underreporting and failure of timely warning. In the United States as well, various reports indicate that there has been vast underreporting. In contrast, the South Korean media has been extremely prompt and forthright in its reporting, which is why South Korea was the first country outside of China to report the exponential rise in Covid-19 positive cases. Similarly, in France, letters by over 30 French journalists based in Italy led to France shuttering schools and certain businesses.
We too seem to be adopting a myopic approach, and the same has only been exacerbated by the recent Supreme Court order. Just recently, on 7 April it was widely reported in the local newspapers in Indore that over the last six days there had been more than 127 deaths, but officially, only 13 deaths have been reported in the entire state of Madhya Pradesh. It is apparent that officers of the administration are fearful and apprehensive of the fact that in case there is a sharp rise under their watch, dire consequences may follow. Such apprehension may not also be unfounded, as the recent transfer of Noida District Magistrate BN Singh would indicate.
The media has also forgotten that the government and public institutions must be held accountable. Despite the situation in Indore, no media outlet is calling for the Chief Minister to take action. The media has not questioned our leaders, asking them to take charge and lead from the frontlines. Interestingly, even as adequate safeguards and equipment have not been provided, many states have invoked Essential Services Maintenance Act. In such situations, can persons be blamed for not coming to work knowing well that they could be exposed without proper protection? Sadly, even on this, media has remained silent.
It is high time that both the media and the administration work together in combating this pandemic. Larger numbers of reported cases with hourly updates as to the concentration would undoubtedly have a deterrent effect. Those currently providing essential services could also prudently take adequate precautions.
Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 confers power on the State Government to prescribe temporary regulations to prevent the outbreak of disease and likewise, Section 35 of the National Disaster Management Act, 2005 empowers the Central Government to take all such measures as it deems necessary for the purpose of disaster management. Nothing should prevent the Central/State governments from making recommendations under Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 & Section 35 of the National Disaster Management Act, 2005 to ensure that whenever news of such unreported cases/deaths are within the knowledge of the media, they must disclose the same to the District Administration, who shall forthwith investigate the same. Directions could also be issued for media persons to act as a courier for essential supplies when travelling to affected areas as the state machinery is already stretched thin, and journalists are able to penetrate into the interior of the country. To this end, the Central Information Bulletin can also be moulded to act as the hub through which information and reporting is enhanced and acted upon.
One must not forget that knowledge is our biggest tool today, both for those fortunate enough to be in their homes, as well as for those less fortunate. The more knowledge and information we have, the better we can take steps towards mitigation.
Stay Home. Be aware. Stay Safe.
Vivek Tankha is a senior advocate and Rajya Sabha MP

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