The Supreme Court has sent a strong message that persons who are putting out public appeals for help in social media during the COVID-19 crisis cannot be targeted through arrests or coercive actions by saying that such messages are false or are tarnishing the national image.
"We do not hesitate in saying that such targeting shall not be condoned, and the Central Government and State Governments should ensure that they immediately cease any direct or indirect threats of prosecution and arrest to citizens who air grievances or those that are attempting to help fellow citizens receive medical aid", the Court ordered in the suo moto case In Re Distribution of Essential Supplies and Services During Lockdown.
The Court directed that all Directors General of Police shall ensure compliance down the ranks of the police forces within their jurisdiction, and warned of contempt action against officers violating the direction.
"In these trying times, those desperately seeking help for their loved ones on these platforms should not have their misery compounded through the actions of the State and its instrumentalities", the Court observed.
The Court said :
"...when many cities in India are suffering through the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have turned to the internet, using applications/websites to find critical support. On these platforms, online communities led by members of the civil society and other individuals, have assisted the needy in multiple ways –often by helping them procure oxygen, essential drugs or find a hospital bed through their own networks or by amplifying original requests, and even by offering moral and emotional support.
However, it is with deep distress that we note that individuals seeking help on such platforms have been targeted, by alleging that the information posted by them is false and has only been posted in social media to create panic, defame the administration or damage the "national image""
The order passed by a bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat cited two additional reasons to prevent the clampdown on information sharing about the pandemic. They are :
- Sharing information widely is in itself an important tool in combating public tragedies like COVID-19 pandemic.
- Sharing information widely will create a "collective public memory" of his pandemic, so that future generations may evaluate our efforts and learn from them.
While elaborating on the first reason, the order authored by Justice Chandrachud referred to academic literature which noted that availability of widespread information and resultant acknowledgement of the problem prevented the drought in Maharashtra in 1973 becoming as bad as the Bengal famine of 1943, where the British even tried to deny the problem even existed. This aspect was mentioned by Professor Amartya Sen in his book 'The Idea of Justice', which was quoted by Justice Chandrachud in his judgment in the KS Puttaswamy judgment(privacy case).
In this backdrop, the Court observed :
"As such, preventing clampdowns on sharing of information on online platforms is not just in the interest of individuals sharing the information,but the larger democratic structures of our nation. Without the ready availability of such information, it is entirely possible that the COVID-19 pandemic may turn into a tragedy worse than what it already is"
As regards the second reason, the Court observed that the presence of collective public memory is important for the creation of knowledge of the problems plaguing us today, so they may be passed on across time.
"This is important since we do not have to travel back too much in our past to realise that the pandemic caused by the "Spanish" flu of 1918, which is said to have infected every third person in the world and killed between 50-100 million individuals (compared to the 17 million who died in World War I), has been almost entirely erased from our collective public memory. Therefore, the widespread sharing of information by individuals living through the COVID-19 pandemic becomes crucial", the Court said.
The order also said that the role of Courts in creating and preserving this collective public memory cannot be understated.
"Hence, in the present proceedings, we hope to not only initiate a dialogue so as to better tackle the current COVID-19 pandemic but also to preserve its memory in our public records, so that future generations may evaluate our efforts and learn from them", the Court said.
The operative portion of the order said :
"The Central Government and State Governments shall notify all Chief Secretaries/Directors General of Police/Commissioners of Police that any clampdown on information on social media or harassment caused to individuals seeking/delivering help on any platform will attract a coercive exercise of jurisdiction by this Court. The Registrar (Judicial) is also directed to place a copy of this order before all District Magistrates in the country".
Amid acute shortage of oxygen and drugs that are essential in treatment of Covid-19 during the second wave, many affected people have been resorting to social media to seek assistance in procurement of resources.
Many celebrities and social media influencers have also lent a voluntary hand in compiling real-time information on availability of resources and sharing toolkits.
The SC's remarks assume relevance in view of UP Government's decision to prosecute people under National Security Act for allegedly raising false alarms on social media.
UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had asserted at a virtual press meet that there is no shortage of oxygen in any private or public COVID-19 hospital in the State and that action under National Security Act may be taken against people spreading "rumours" on social media.
Adityanath also issued instructions to high-rank Police officials to "keep a watch" on people spreading rumours, and duly investigate all such incidents to see if the scarcity was reported just to create fear.
Recently, the Amethi Police in UP recently booked a boy under various provisions of IPC for "spreading false information". The accused had issued an appeal on Twitter for leads for oxygen availability to save the life of his grandfather who was critical.
Meanwhile, a PIL has also been filed before the Allahabad High Court by activist Saket Gokhale, seeking to restrain any coercive action.
Title : In Re Distribution of Essential Supplies and Services During Pandemic, Suo Moto Writ Petition(Civil) No. 3/2021
Coram : Justices DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat
Citation : LL 2021 SC 236Click here to read/download the order