The Supreme Court yesterday directed the media to refer to and publish the official government version of developments around COVID-19. “We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct the media refer to and publish the official version about the developments,” a two-judge bench led by Chief Justice SA Bobde ordered. The Central government had asked the court to order that no media outlet should print, publish, or telecast anything on the COVID-19 pandemic without first ascertaining facts from the mechanisms provided by the government. To this end, the Central government will start a daily bulletin within 24 hours, the court said.

In particular, we expect the Media (print, electronic or social) to maintain a strong sense of responsibility and ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated.

A daily bulletin by the Government of India through all media avenues including social media and forums to clear the doubts of people would be made active within a period of 24 hours as submitted by the Solicitor General of India.

The court was hearing two PILs seeking directions for welfare of migrant workers and measures to arrest the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Supreme Court said that migration to rural areas was triggered by panic around “fake news” that the lockdown would last for over three months. “It is therefore not possible for us to overlook this menace of fake news either by electronic, print or social media,” the court said.

India’s nationwide lockdown to arrest the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic triggered migration from multiple cities to rural areas. Many were stopped at borders and turned back, some were sprayed with disinfectant, the government is now housing some migrants in relief camps.

The Central government has maintained that the migration was triggered due to fake news. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the court that the migrant exodus from cities was “due to panic created by some fake/misleading news and social media”. In a status report on the migrants, Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla had said that “any deliberate or unintended fake or inaccurate reporting” in print, electronic, or social media would trigger panic.

The government sought direction that no electronic, print, web portal, or social media can publish anything without “first ascertaining the true factual position from the separate mechanism provided by the Central government”.

India has crossed the 1,500 mark, with 1,637 positive cases. 38 people have died so far. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected over 860,000 people, and claimed over 42,000 lives.