Source: The Indian Express
Synopsis: MHA has recommended criminalizing the spread of misleading news about vaccines. This step would have many repercussions.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has issued a recommendation letter to all state governments. In that, the MHA mentioned that state governments can pursue criminal action against individuals and organisations for spreading misleading rumours about the vaccine’s efficacy.
This recommendation has been issued as per the provision of the Disaster Management Act (DMA), 2005 and the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.
It has again raised the issue of curtailing free speech under the cover of fake news.
Restrictions on Free Speech in India
- According to the constitution, the right to free speech can only be restricted on the basis of valid grounds listed under Article 19(2). Grounds are interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality.
- The SC has also stated that the grounds of restrictions on free speech must be inspected thoroughly. Vague and overbroad grounds are unconstitutional.
What can be the potential outcomes of the suggestion given by MHA?
The orders by MHA will give the police unrestricted freedom to detain and prosecute individuals for raising questions about government actions. For instance, some state governments used state regulations under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and DMA to criminalise fake news and unnecessary information during the lockdown.
There were many examples in the past about its potential outcomes. They are
- First, the CPA (Criminal Justice and Police Accountability) Project’s study found that many FIRs had been registered across Madhya Pradesh for spreading rumors about COVID-19. In one instance, FIR registered against an individual who declared support for Tablighi Jamaat on WhatsApp.
- Second, Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG) report has documented 55 cases of targeting of journalists during the lockdown. State governments have prosecuted people for reporting on the mishandling of the pandemic, corruption, and the lack of state support for migrant workers.
What should have the government done instead?
Public trust in the government during a crisis depends upon transparency, not criminal prosecution. So the government has to avoid using laws to suppress the critics.
- The democratic government needs to be effectively transparent and accountable.
- The government can involve in scientific responses to valid criticism and unscientific misconceptions. This will build strong public opinion and support for the government.
The government violates the principle of informed consent. There is also a failure to communicate necessary information to the public which is important for healthcare. The government has to work on it.