The Indian government, on 31 March, approached the Supreme Court seeking a directive to news outlets to refrain from publishing any COVID-19-related news without clearance from the government, according to an affidavit filed by the government in the court and a report by the legal news website Live Law. The Supreme Court denied the request, according to the judgment reviewed by CPJ.

The government had justified the request for the blanket order by claiming that “fake or inaccurate” reporting could cause panic in the country and had proposed setting up a “separate mechanism” for clearance of any coverage on the pandemic. However, the court said it will not interfere with “the free discussion about the pandemic,” but directed news outlets to refer to and publish the official version about the developments.

“Journalists are providing an essential service by informing the public during this national emergency and should be allowed to do their work unimpeded,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher, in New York. “The Indian government should focus its efforts on containing the virus, not on containing vital news reporting.”

It was unclear exactly how news media would be expected to comply with the court’s ruling that they must refer to and publish official information. Anuradha Bhasin, the executive editor of Kashmir Times, told CPJ the judgement was ambiguous and therefore subject to misuse. Speaking to Newslaundry, Siddharth Vardharajan, editor at news website The Wire, called the court’s direction “unfortunate.”

“It’s normal for news media to use official information in news reports, but they should not be forced to do so,” said CPJ’s Iftikhar. “It is not the government or Supreme Court’s place to tell journalists how to do their job.”

CPJ contacted the Home Ministry spokesperson for comment via email but did not immediately receive a response.

The government invoked the Disaster Management Act on March 11, which makes the “act of creating panic” a criminal offense. According to this law, any false claim or warning is punishable with up to two years imprisonment and a fine, or both. The government has also invoked the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act under which the punishment for spreading misleading information is up to six months in jail, a fine of 1,000 Indian rupees (US$15), or both.

Today, news magazine Caravan reported that Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked editors and owners of more than 20 news outlets to refrain from any negative coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in a private meeting on March 24, hours before he announced a national lockdown to control the spread of the virus. In a statement published on his website March 24, Modi said he emphasized in the meeting the importance of tackling the “spread of pessimism, negativity and rumor mongering.”

Since the announcement of the national lockdown in India, CPJ has documented at least three cases where journalists’ movements were restricted and they were physically assaulted.