Centre blames media “fake news” for mass migration during lockdown

Published : April 01, 2020 18:42 IST

In Chennai, stranded migrant workers wait for packaged food, distributed by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), during the nationwide lockdown, on April 1. Photo: R. Senthil Kumar/PTI

On March 31, the Supreme Court observed that the migration of labourers and others during the nationwide lockdown was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lockdown would continue for more than three months. Such panic migration, the bench, comprising Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde and Justice L. Nageswara Rao, said “had caused untold suffering to those who believed and acted on such news”. They held that it was “not possible for them to overlook this menace of fake news either by electronic, print or social media”. While they said that they did not intend to interfere with “free discussion about the pandemic”, they issued directions to the media to refer to and publish the official version of developments.

This came after the Central government held the media responsible for causing panic through fake or inaccurate reporting and appealed to the court to issue directions. It appealed to the court to issue directives to the media to “prevent fake and inaccurate reporting whether intended or not” by electronic, print or social media which would cause panic in society. The Central government refused to acknowledge its own failure of not giving enough time to State governments and Union territories to make arrangements for the national lockdown and for not considering the plight of the huge swathes of workers in the unorganised sector who overnight were rendered jobless and homeless.

The Central government, which has been cautious in sharing information about the spread of the epidemic to the extent of not even regularly updating its official website compared with the States’ data, had in its affidavit urged the Supreme Court to pass orders that no media should publish COVID-19 related news without ascertaining the facts with the government. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted that a daily bulletin would be issued through all media avenues, including social media, to clear doubts.

The bench made these observations while hearing a petition seeking welfare measures for the migrants during the lockdown. The Centre submitted a status report to the court regarding the steps taken by various State governments and Union Territories. Some 21,064 relief camps had been set up and 6,66,291 persons had been provided shelters and 22,88,279 persons had been provided with food. It appealed to the court to direct State governments and Union territories to implement the Central government’s directives on the lockdown.

The Bench appeared satisfied with the status report and said it “expected the media (print, electronic and social) to maintain a strong sense of responsibility and ensure that unverifiable news capable of causing panic is not disseminated”. The Bench referred to Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act 2005, which provides for punishment to a person who makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster, its severity or magnitude, leading to panic. The punishment was imprisonment which could extend to one year or with fine.

On the migrant exodus and the problems they faced, as highlighted by the media, the court said the “anxiety and fear of migrants should be understood by police and other authorities”. It directed the Centre to ensure accessibility of basic necessities and medical facilities to the migrant workers.

A widely held view is that all that the Centre has done so far is to issue directives and advisories to State governments and tell people to “stay where they are” as part of its strategy to contain the chain of transmission. It has evaded questions on shortfall in the health infrastructure, personal protective equipment, mortality of health workers involved in the management of COVID-19 and on community transmission.