Harassing people seeking COVID-related help to result in coercive action, SC warns Centre and states

The Supreme Court had earlier made clear that any attempt to clamp down on the free flow of information on social media, including a call for help, would be treated as contempt of the court
Image for representational purpose
Image for representational purpose

The Supreme Court has directed the Centre and states to inform their chief secretaries and police chiefs that any clampdown on information on social media or harassment to individuals seeking help on any platform in relation to COVID-19 would result in coercive action. 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 apex court said.

It said it was "deeply distressed" to note that individuals seeking help on such platforms have been targeted, by alleging that the information posted by them was false and posted on social media to create panic, defame the administration or damage the national image. A bench headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud said such targeting of individuals should not be condoned, and the Centre and state governments should ensure that they immediately cease 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 apex court, in a 64-page order uploaded on the its site on late Sunday night, said that if this keeps happening even after the current order, it would be constrained to use the powers available to it under it contempt jurisdiction. "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," said the bench, also comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat. The top court said the clampdown on information sharing must be absolutely stopped immediately because sharing information widely is in itself an important tool in combating public tragedies and it will help in the creation of a collective public memory of this pandemic.

"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 a tragedy worse than what it already is," the bench said. The bench also referred to its Right to Privacy judgement and said, "Academic literature documenting the widespread availability of information and the resultant acknowledgement of the problem is what prevented the drought in Maharashtra in 1973 from becoming as bad as the Bengal Famine of 1943, where the British tried to deny the problem even existed.

The apex court said that widespread sharing of information by individuals living through the COVID-19 pandemic is crucial and 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," it said.

The directions were passed in a suo motu case for ensuring essential supplies and services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bench has taken up issues such as the projected demand for oxygen in the country at present and in the near future, how the government intends to allocate it to "critically affected" states and its monitoring mechanism to ensure supply. The Supreme Court had earlier made clear that any attempt to clamp down on the free flow of information on social media, including a call for help from people, would be treated as contempt of the court.

"There should be free flow of information; we should hear voices of citizens. This is a national crisis. There should not be any presumption that the grievances raised on the Internet are always false. Let a strong message be sent to all the DGPs that there should not be any kind of clampdown," the bench had said while reserving its order on April 30.

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