Bom HC | Fear of corona infection spreading through newspapers not supported by evidence: Court questions blanket ban on door-to-door delivery of newspapers

Bombay High Court: Prasanna B. Varale, J. took cognizance of the amendment made in the Government Order whereby door-to-door delivery of newspapers has been completely prohibited in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and in all containment zones as may be decided by the District Magistrates.

Earlier, by its order dated 20-4-2020, the High Court had taken suo motu cognizance of the Government’s decision to allow printing of newspapers but banning distribution thereof, after which the High Court had issued notice to the State Government. In that order of 20th April, the Court had specifically observed that the State Government, having regard to the spread of coronavirus, can certainly consider restricting door-to-door delivery of newspapers in particular areas.

Pursuant the Court’s order, the State Government made an amendment in its earlier order and directed that print media is exempted from lockdown from 20-4-2020. Wherever door-to-door delivery is done, it shall be with the knowledge of the receiver and the newspaper delivery personal shall wear mask and use hand sanitizer and maintain social distancing. However, it was further directed that door-to-door delivery of newspapers and magazines is prohibited in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and in all containment zones as may be decided by the District Magistrates. In these areas, they may be sold through the establishments that are exempted under the order dated 17.04.2020.

Making an attempt to provide some logic or reason for the said amendment, D.R. Kale, the Government Pleader, relied on the following statement in affidavit in reply filed by the State:

“I say that according to the experts, COVID-19 virus can stay on various surfaces for a considerable amount of time and the newspaper is something that will be passed on by hand to hand by various people which can increases the chances of infection spreading to more number of people …”

According to the Court, this was only a general and sweeping statement. There is no reference to any comment of the experts. On the contrary, the statements of certain experts published in newspapers are to the effect that there is no need to carry an impression that newspaper is a medium for spread of coronavirus. The High Court observed that no logical explanation is forthcoming to explain the blanket ban imposed on door-to-door delivery of newspapers. It was also noted that as per certain news items, the readership as well as average time spent for reading newspapers has increased during the lockdown period. The Court said:

“On the backdrop of above referred facts, one fails to understand the logic behind the statement made in affidavit in reply in para-9 that the newspaper is something that will be passed on by hand to hand by various people which can increases the chances of infection spreading to more number of people.”

Amicus Curiae, Satyajit Bora, submitted that recently, the Madras High Court has dismissed a petition that sought a ban on distribution of newspapers. He prayed for an amendment to the petition so as to place a copy of the Madras High Court’s order as well as to raise certain grounds and add prayers in view of the affidavit in reply filed by the State. The oral prayer for amendment was allowed by the Court.

The Government Pleader also sought time to file an additional affidavit in reply, on which the Court granted 3 week’s time. The matter will be next heard on 11th June 2020. [High Court of Bombay v. State of Maharashtra, Suo Motu PIL (St.) No. 10567 of 2020, dated 27-4-2020]  

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