A free press is a covenant for a society’s freedom of expression. Without a free press, there is no free flow of ideas or information, no free speech, and no free thought. An authoritarian government’s self-interest is to control thought and speech, the free flow of information and ideas, and therefore, the press.
Thus, the Supreme Court’s directive on Tuesday to the media to “refer to and publish the official version” of the developments related to the coronavirus pandemic is of concern. It was a response to the Central government's submission that the mass movement of migrant workers was caused by panic created by the “fake news” that the lockdown would continue for three months. The court cited Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act (2005) which provides for punishment to anyone spreading false alarm about a disaster’s magnitude or severity, leading to panic.
Ironically, that very night, TV channels and others propagated fake news like “#CoronaJihad”, on the heels of the Tablighi Jamaat’s blunder of meeting in New Delhi’s Nizamuddin area even after restrictions on gatherings began rolling out, and that its 1,800 or so participants had fanned out across the country, potentially contributing to the community spread of Covid-19.
The Centre disingenuously pointed its finger at the media. No economic migrant who fled the city back for his Hindi heartland village did so because he read a newspaper; widespread reportage suggests that the main culprit was the ubiquitous WhatsApp forward -- a platform the government hardly ever seems to act against, given its importance to the ruling party’s political messaging.
True, there is speculation in the media about the length of the lockdown -- but it is based on the epidemiological uncertainty about the spread of the coronavirus or about India’s resources on the healthcare front. None of the media’s speculation was done with the intention of spreading panic, but rather to convey to readers about the continuing deliberations within the medical community in India and the scientific community worldwide.
With this in mind, the court’s directive is like amputating a limb of democracy in response to a blister or a sprained muscle. It is unlikely that the directive will be applied strictly in the matter of facts and figures regarding cases and deaths, nationally and statewise; as it is, the Indian Council of Medical Research’s daily briefing has been merged into the Union Health Ministry’s briefing, effectively reducing the multiple sources of news available to reporters – and ultimately the public -- on the coronavirus.