SC trashes allegation Dua spread rumours on COVID, says situation was 'definitely alarming'

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New Delhi, Jun 3 (PTI) The Supreme Court Thursday shot down the allegation that veteran journalist Vinod Dua was spreading rumours about India's preparedness to deal with the pandemic and created panic on movement of migrant workers last year, saying “situation was definitely alarming”.

A bench of Justices Uday Umesh Lalit and Vineet Saran not only quashed the FIR against Dua but took recourse of the 1962 judgment in the Kedar Nath Singh in ruling that journalists are entitled to protection in sedition cases so long as they do not incite people to violence against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.

It was alleged in the FIR, lodged at Shimla in Himachal Pradesh by a local BJP leader, that Dua created panic amongst public and disturbed public peace by trying to spread false information such as the government does not have enough testing facilities and migrants are going to native places during the lockdown.

A bench, which held that “all the offences set out in the FIR, in our considered view, are not made out at all”, examined the alleged offensive statements used for lodging the police complaint for offences including sedition and public mischief under the IPC.

It was alleged that Dua, in his show, termed as the biggest failure the fact that the government did not have enough facilities to carry out testing.

“Till now we do not have any information how many (PPE suits, N95 masks and masks of 3 ply) we have and how many will become available by when and the ventilators needed in other countries and in India, respiratory devices and sanitisers were being exported till 24.3.2020 instead of keeping these for use in our country,” was allegedly said by the journalist on his show uploaded on March 30, 2020.

“We now consider these statements,” the bench said in its judgement and analysed whether there was any element of criminality.

What was prevailing on March 30, 2020 was clear that the migrant workers, in huge numbers, were moving towards their villages, it noted.

In the circumstances, there would naturally be some apprehension about the shelter and food to be provided to them en-route and if Dua in show made certain assertions, then he would be within his rights to say that as a journalist he was touching upon issues of great concern, the bench said in its 117-page judgement.

“It cannot be said that the petitioner was spreading any false information or rumours. It is not the case of the respondents that the migrant workers started moving towards their home towns/villages purely as a result of the statements made by the petitioner,” it said.

Such movement of migrant workers had begun long before and in the circumstances, these statements can neither be taken to be an attempt to incite migrant workers to start moving towards their home towns or villages nor can it be taken to be an incitement for causing any food riots, Justice Lait, who wrote the judgement, said.

“The situation was definitely alarming around March 30, 2020 and as a journalist if the petitioner showed some concern, could it be said that he committed offences as alleged,” it said.

It is common knowledge that countries found themselves wanting in terms of infrastructure and facilities to cope up with the effects of the pandemic, it said, adding that considering the size of the population of this country, the testing facilities, at least in the initial stages, were not exactly adequate.

“If in that light, the petitioner made any comments about testing facilities or PPE Suits, N-95 masks and masks of 3 ply, those comments in first two statements, cannot be anything other than appraisal of the situation then obtaining,” it held.

In giving clean chit to Dua, the top court used its own earlier order to show that the movement of migrant workers back to their home town or villages had posed an alarming situation.

“This Court suggested that a daily bulletin by the Government of India be made active so that correct and precise information was made available to the general public and the exodus of migrant workers could thus be checked.

“However, the Order also shows the magnitude of the problem which required about 6,66,291 persons to be provided shelter and 22,88,279 persons to be provided food,” it said while noting its earlier order in the suo motu case related to miseries faced by migrant workers. PTI SJK MNL RKS RKS

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