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Press freedom 'in some ways' more noxious than dark days of 1975-77 Emergency: PUCL

By Our Representative

In its second report in the series Lockdown on Civil Liberties, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Maharashtra, focusing on news media during Covid-19 pandemic, has regretted that, today, there exists “an unparalleled impasse for press freedom, in some ways more noxious than the dark days of the 1975-77 Emergency”,  damaging “people’s right to freedom of speech and expression.”
The report said, “The Union Government, in keeping with its general information policy, has opted for a ‘need to know’ approach as far as Covid-19 is concerned, with the government itself deciding the contours of ‘need’,” even as “there is unaccountable silence on essential issues -- the plight of migrant workers, for instance.”
This situation has developed alongside “a largely compliant media, heavily dependent on state advertising”, which has become “the unquestioning purveyor of ‘official’ information and of narrow nationalism”, it said, adding, “Prime time on television channels has replaced serious debate with rabid and dangerously inflammatory talk shows.”
While the TV channels “competed” with one another to cover the tragic death of film actor Sushant Singh Rajput, they remained “supine”, failing to scrutinize issues ranging from environmental regulations, the PM-Cares Fund, the domicile law in Kashmir, to cases against victims and rights activists in connection with the Delhi violence and those accused in the Bhima- Koregaon cases, the report said.
“Journalists who did question the administration were arrested, faced criminal charges or were intimidated”, the report said, suggesting, this is a continuation of the media policy adopted by the government since 2014, which has resulted in "more than 200 serious attacks on journalists in India, targeted for their investigative work”, with not a single attack resulting in conviction.

Excerpts:

The control over information continued in several forms throughout the lockdown period, aided by the combination of judicial pronouncements, regulatory notifications and lack of access to official information. It affected sustained coverage of crucial issues, including the government’s policy on relief for migrant workers, on testing for Covid-19 and the availability of essential drugs.
On March 20, 2020, the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeiTY) issued an advisory to all social media platforms to “inform users not to host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, update or share any information that may affect public order and unlawful in any way.” Social media platforms, as intermediaries, must take action to immediately disable/remove such content, the advisory said.
While the advisory addressed social media platforms -- a major disseminator of information, fake or real -- the government brought established media houses on board. On March 24, 2020, barely a few hours before announcing the nation-wide lockdown, the Prime Minister approached around 20 select media owners to publish positive articles about the pandemic. He said that “it was important to tackle the spread of pessimism, negativity and rumour-mongering.”
Various Union and State government ministries issued notifications regulating the media under the guise of combating fake news and disinformation, armed with a Supreme Court order on March 31, 2020 by Chief Justice SA Bobde and L Nageshwar Rao in a petition to redress the grievances of migrant workers.In this petition (Alakh Alok Srivastava vs Union of India), the Supreme Court’s order glossed over the role of the Union Government in alleviating their conditions.
Instead, the apex court adopted a status report of the Government that said the ‘exodus of migrant labourers was triggered due to panic created by some fake/misleading news and social media’. The Union Government wanted to smuggle in pre-censorship of news, bringing in what senior journalists termed a ‘news emergency’.
The government urged the Supreme Court to direct the media to publish nothing about the pandemic unless it was cleared by the Government first. A 39-page status report, signed by the Union Home Secretary Ajay K Bhalla and submitted to the Supreme Court, stated:
“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 society… any panic reaction by any section of society could not only be harmful for such (a) section but would harm the entire nation.”
The Bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and including Justice L Nageswara Rao accepted this version of the government. The Bench observed:
“The migration of large number 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. 
"It is therefore not possible for us to overlook this menace of fake news either by (the) electronic, print or social media. Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 provides for punishment to a person who makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic. Such person shall be punished with imprisonment, which may extend to one year or with fine.”
Government notifications served as warnings about disseminating ‘unverified’ news, i.e., news that did not emanate from official sources
While the apex court did not directly endorse the government’s suggestion of pre-censorship and stated that it did not want to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, it still directed the media “to refer and publish the official version about the developments”.
For added measure, it referred to Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, which penalizes those who circulate “a false alarm or warning as to a disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic.”
Taking their cue from this order, various state governments came out with their own notifications. Ostensibly to deal with the problem of fake news, these notifications served warnings about the dissemination of ‘unverified’ news, i.e., news that did not emanate from official sources.
  • On April 1, 2020, the Delhi government issued an order to monitor developments across all media to ‘ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated’ and to hold out the threat of penal action against defaulters.
  • On April 2, 2020, the Assam Government constituted a committee “for monitoring and checking of fake news in all forms of media.” 
  • On April 3, 2020, the Haryana government announced that, to “tighten the noose around rumour-mongers spreading provocative and misleading messages” several dedicated teams at both State and District Level had been constituted to ‘monitor Facebook pages, Twitter, YouTube, web portals, news channels, other social media platforms to nip those involved in circulating ‘fake news’, spreading sensationalism and misinformation about COVID-19 and to stay abreast of the situation so that panic is not spread among the people.’ 
  • On April 4, 2020, the Sikkim government constituted a highlevel fact-checking team to “ensure unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated.” 
  • On April 10, 2020, the Mumbai police issued prohibitory orders under section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) “for restricting any dissemination of information through various messaging and social media platforms which is found to be incorrect, derogatory and discriminatory towards a particular community, distortion of facts, causing panic and confusion among the general public, inciting mistrust towards government functionaries and thereby causing danger to human health or safety or a disturbance to public tranquillity.” The order was in place till April 24, 2020. 
  • On May 23, 2020, another order was issued, in force till June 8, 2020, which said that the ‘Admin’ of these messaging and social media platforms would be held personally responsible for any such information being disseminated from a group administered by them. The Admins had to report such information to the Police and offenders would be penalized under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. 
In May, news reports of the slip in India’s ranking by two places on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) world press freedom index from 140 in 2019, and, with its characteristic sensitivity to international opinion, the government criticized the RSF ranking for portraying a ‘bad picture’ of India to the world.
The government set up a central index monitoring cell, comprising government officials and journalists P Sainath and Rajat Sharma in May. The cell would “put in place a mechanism for States to come up with their own rankings of press freedom, coordinate with stakeholders and improve visibility of steps taken by government for journalists”.

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