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Fight the virus, not freedom of expression

Fight the virus, not freedom of expression

We at the Foundation of Media Professionals, are deeply concerned with the framing of accusations by the government in its status report before the Supreme Court of India on 31 March 2020, in the matter of Alakh Alok Srivastava versus Union of India.

The  status report claims that “deliberate or inadvertent fake news . . . is found to be the single most unmanageable hindrance” in the government’s handling of the COVID 19 crisis. While it may be true that not all news gathering is credible and some could indeed be patently false, to draw a direct link between this and the flight of migrants from various parts of the country requires evidence to this effect. To lay this squarely at the door of the media is to deflect potential blame from the government and from various state agencies. Especially when this is done without providing the evidence for it. Further, equating unverified WhatsApp/social media messages with the news is disingenuous and damaging to the credibility of the media. This comes at a time when journalists are also doing their work in extremely trying circumstances.

Second, when the court issues an order based on this claim, to the effect that Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act of 2005 will apply – “punishment to a person who makes or circulates a false alarm . . . leading to panic,” we hope that this is read in the right spirit. This order does not take away from the media’s constitutionally mandated freedom to pursue the truth even when it is at variance with the state’s version of matters. Similarly, it must be borne in mind that the court did clarify that it did not “intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic”. Its direction to “refer to and publish the official version about the developments” does not in the least detract from the media’s freedom to question, critique that official version or provide other versions.  

Our fears though that the court’s order is liable to be misused are not unfounded. The filing of a first information report against The Wire by the police of the district of Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh is a case in point. The Wire has been accused of causing panic by stating that the Chief Minister attended a public religious event on March 25th even after the imposition of the lockdown. But, as The Wire indicated in its defence, the Chief Minister’s physical presence at this event is a matter of public record. We therefore regard the FIR as an attempt to muzzle the press and intimidate journalists.

In another disturbing sign, even as the Prime Minister underscored the importance of the media in disseminating information on the Covid-19 pandemic, there were instances recorded, on 23 March 2020, of the police in Delhi and Hyderabad assaulting persons from the press.

We, the Foundation of Media Professionals, would like to underscore here that any infringement of the freedom of the press goes against the founding principles of our democracy. We oppose such infringement in the strongest possible terms.

To prevent the atmosphere from being vitiated further, we demand:

That the Central Government furnish specific instances of “fake news” to substantiate its allegation before the Supreme Court that the media was culpable for the exodus of migrant workers.

That the Central and state government take strict action against all those trenching on the media freedom amidst the pandemic by issuing threats, booking baseless FIRs and abusing the police and official machinery to brow-beat journalists.

 We would also like to underline here that checking facts and contesting narratives in the public domain is the duty of journalists and they are accountable to the people for the veracity of their evidence and the validity of their reasoning. The Fourth Estate is under no obligation to abide by the government's suggestion to focus only on "inspiring and positive stories" about Covid-19. We will fight to the end to uphold our rights under the Constitution and we know that fighting the pandemic is also about fighting falsehoods and misinformation. We will not let the virus kill our freedom.

Sincerely,

Revati Laul e-signature

(Revati Laul)
Director,
Foundation for Media Professionals

03 April 2020

Revati Laul
Fight the virus not freedom of expression: FMP asks govt not to restrict press freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown