As COVID-19 spread in the country, so did the fake news and misinformation regarding the same started spreading. In uncertain times such as these, people are already at unease and fake news can lead to further panic and in the worst case even lead to anarchy like situation. Thus, it is crucial to implement laws that stop the same during an epidemic.
There are provisions under the Indian Penal Code and the Disaster management Act which give the law enforcement agencies the powers to curb the spread of fake news and impose sanctions on the offenders. Let us look at the provisions and the consequences of violating them.
Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act
It states that whoever circulates a false alarm or warning for a disaster about its severity or magnitude which leads to panic is punishable with imprisonment up to 1 year or with fine or both. The Supreme Court in the case of Alakh Alok Srivastava v Union of India (2020 SCC OnLine SC 345) acknowledged that the Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act can be used to keep a check on the spread of misinformation and fake news.
Illustration: A shares a message on Whatsapp stating that poultry is a carrier of Covid-19 while no proof of the same is available. This leads to panic among people and affects poultry businesses as well as reduces the food availability. Such an Act is punishable under the Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act.
Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code
This states that if any person publishes a statement or circulates a rumour or a report:
- That can cause fear to the public or any section of the public in a way that they may be induced to commit an offence against the state or public tranquillity.
- With an intent to incite, or which is likely to incite, any class or community of persons to commit any offence against any other class or community.
- A statement, a report or a rumour that creates or promotes enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes in the name of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste, etc. shall be punished with an imprisonment up to 3 years or fine or both.
Illustration: There is a group of persons that tries to pin all the blame of COVID-19 on a certain community by circulation of rumors on social media, which lead to people being skeptical about people from that community and discriminating against them, hurling abuses and socially boycotting them. Such an act is punishable under Section 505 of IPC.
In the time of an epidemic it is essential that any fake news or misinformation that spreads fear and panic among people must be stopped. These laws impose sanctions upon people doing the same and help to make sure that mostly authentic information reaches people.