Fact-check: Has the government banned free discussion on COVID 19 on social media?

A social media message has been doing the rounds which reads as follows:

“Mandate To All. Tonight 12 (midnight) onwards Disaster Management Act has been implemented across the country. According to this update, apart from the Govt department no other citizen is allowed to post any update or share any forward related to Coronavirus and it being a punishable offence. Group Admins are requested to post the above update and inform the groups.”

This message has led many Whatsapp admins and other social media group admins to ban members from posting any news or information about COVID-19, even information that can be categorised as helpful or authentic.

Let us test the veracity of these claims. In an order dated 24th March, 2020[1], the National Disaster Management Authority under Section 6 (2)(i) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (DMA) gave instructions to departments of Central Government, State Government and State Authorities to take measures to control spread of the disease. The order also directed the National Executive Committee to issue necessary guidelines under Section 10 (2)(l) to that effect. Therefore, we are aware that sections of DMA were invoked to mitigate the risks of the pandemic.

If we look at provisions of DMA, specifically Section 54 which deals with punishment for false claims. This section states that whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to a disaster or its severity or magnitude which leads to panic, will be punishable with imprisonment of upto one year, upon conviction.

This section clearly states that information that is false and what leads to panic is punishable, not all information from verifiable sources.

Another Act to deal with a pandemic of this nature is the Epidemic Act, 1897. Under Section 2 of this Act, state governments and union territories can take special measures and formulate regulations to contain the disease. Section 3 provides that disobedience of any regulations can invite penal provisions under Section 188, Penal Code, 1860. Post this, many state governments have invoked the Epidemic Act including Delhi [2] , Karnataka [3] , Gujarat [4] etc. Under Section 188, Penal Code, 1860  one can be punished only if one disobeys the rules of a public servant (i.e. rules prescribed by various state governments in this case). Nowhere does it mention that one can be punished for a mere discussion on the pandemic.

Similarly, under Section 505 (1)(b), Penal Code, 1860 any person who makes, publishes or circulates information that is likely to cause alarm to the public or is against public tranquility, etc is punishable with imprisonment. Again under the ambit of this section, only that speech is punishable that leads to panic or false alarm and not “all speech”.

Even the Supreme Court in an order dated as recent as 31st March, 2020 [5] , told the media to maintain a strong sense of responsibility and ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated however the Court also stated that it does not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic but directed the media refer to and publish the official version about the developments.” [6]

The Government has far-reaching powers under the Epidemic Act, 1897 and the Disaster Management Act, 2005 however these powers are not meant to intrude upon freedom of speech as long as they are used to disseminate genuine information and not to cause alarm or spread panic among the public.

In conclusion, the message quoted above which has made it’s way in multitude WhatsApp groups is fake. There is no need to worry if genuine and verifiable information, which is the need of the hour, is being shared with the members of a WhatsApp group.


[2] https://main.sci.goc.in/pdf/cir/covid19_14032020.pdf (page 3 onwards)

[3] https://www.simpliance.in/files/news/Karnataka%20Epidemic%20Diseases,%20COVID-19%20Regulations,%202020.pdf

[4] https://nrhm.gujarat.gov.in/Portal/News/218_1_Notification-14-03-2020.pdf

[5] Alakh Alok Srivastava v. Union of India, WP(s) (Civil) No(s). 468/2020, order dated 31-03-2020

[6] https://www.scconline.com/blog/post/2020/3/31/coronavirus-covid-19-food-is-being-provided-to-over-22-lakh-migrant-workers-centre-tells-sc/

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    Such a great blog because this blog is really very informative which is superb.

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