COVID 19 | Madras HC declines petition to restrain publication and distribution of newspapers amid fears of spread of Coronavirus; Print media echoes the views of the people

Madras High Court: A Division Bench of N. Kirubakaran and R. Hemalatha, JJ. while addressing a petition, quoted the below with regard to importance of newspapers:

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have Government without newspapers, or newspapers without Government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

– Thomas Jefferson

Bench observed that, a vibrant media is an asset for any democratic country like India.

Quoting the role of media, Court stated that,

“…during the independence struggle, it played a vital role to form opinion against the British Rule. Subsequently also, the role of media against the dark period of democracy [1975-77] is laudable.”

Print media echoes the views of the people.

Further, stating that Supreme Court has upheld the freedom of press in very many Judgments, bench cited the Supreme Court case in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, wherein freedom of press was upheld stating that freedom of press is a requirement in any democratic society for its effective functioning and Governments are required to respect this at all times.

“Any attempt to restrict or prohibit the publication of newspapers would amount to muzzling of independence of Media.

What is expected is only the news and not the views of the publisher.”

Mixing of views and ideology should be avoided. However, it is a fact that some of the publishers are mixing their views along with the news.

The present petition has been filed challenging the exemption given by the Centre to the print media and electronic media by virtue of Notification No. 40-3/2020 dated 24-03-2020.

Petitioner stated that, COVID 19 is capable of spreading through paper surface which can survive about 4 days.

If the Newspapers are published and it is supplied to the readers, there is a possibility of spreading virus, even if the paper delivery boy is infected with the Corona Virus. Thus, the exemption of print media is being challenged.

Petitioner relied on a study named  “Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1”, in which it has been stated that,

Corona virus would persist up to 4 to 5 days and 24 days in paper and cardboard medium respectively. Based on the above said research studies, he would submit that if the Print Media publishes various Newspapers and if they are supplied to the readers, there is a possibility of spreading of virus through the Newspapers. When the Advanced countries themselves are struggling to control the spread of virus, developing country like India should not suffer because of the circulation of the Newspapers, as there is a likelihood of spreading of virus.

Therefore, he seeks an interim order restraining the Print Media from publishing any Newspapers in India.

Dr T.Jacob John, Professor of Virology at Christian Medical College, Vellore though agreed, that the paper products have a risk of spreading the disease, still stated that amongst all the scenario through which the virus can be spread, transmission through newspapers is the least probable. He would also suggest that the spread of pathogen can be curbed by simply washing hands with soaps after handling the newspapers or currency notes.

Additional Advocate General submitted that right to information is a fundamental right and therefore, any steps to restrain the Print Media from publishing will go against the fundamental rights of the Citizens.

Thus, Bench stated that,

More reasearch is needed to establish that the virus could spread easily through newspapers. When such is a position based on these preliminary researches and in the absence of sufficient data, the prayer sought for by the petitioner cannot be granted.

In the end, while dismissing the petition, Court quoted,

“Newspapers have become more important to the average man than the scriptures.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

[T. Ganesh Kumar v. Union of India, 2020 SCC OnLine Mad 914, decided on 09-04-2020]

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