|It has come to our notice that this article has been forwarded on several chat and social media platforms with a MISLEADING introduction that the Disaster Management Act prohibits any citizen, apart from the government, to post any update or share any forward related to Coronavirus, making it a punishable offence.
This is NOT what the article below says; it merely explains the provisions of the said law, and points out that **FAKE** claims and warnings may attract penalties under Sections 52 and 54 of the Act.
Fake news peddlers may now face imprisonment of up to one year or a fine under Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act (DMA), 2005. The provisions of the Act come into force immediately after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for a 21-day nationwide lockdown in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 virus.
With DMA being invoked pan-country for the first time, the provisions of the Act enables different government agencies to effectively manage COVID-19. The ‘Offences and Penalties’ mentioned under Sections 51 to 60 serves as an effective tool against those acting as an impediment to prevention and containment of the virus.
Even as the number of COVID-19 cases across the country has shot up to over 600 and claimed 10 lives, across social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp and Telegram, there are a series of posts giving unverified information. Given the availability of multilingual and multimedia technological platforms, fake information travels fast and embeds itself in the minds of the ‘digitally illiterate.’ This scenario requires timely intervention of the responsible agencies using technology or legislation to check the flow of unscientific information. In the absence of such intervention, it can leave a vast majority of citizenry polarised, biased and suspicious even of qualified expertise or opinion by doctors and other community helpers.
Earlier in March, the ‘misgiving’ of information on ‘chicken as a carrier of Coronavirus’ on social media, cost the poultry industry an estimated loss of Rs 1.6 billion per day, according to the All India Poultry Breeders’ Association. Despite the clarification by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), not only did the culling of chicken continue but also played havoc in the lives of chicken breeders, traders and allied sectors.
Though the Indian government proactively partnered with cross media platforms along with World Health Organisation (WHO) and even shared advisories to social media to curb fake news, the conventional mechanism to battle against COVID-19 was largely toothless.
Moreover, invoking Section 69A of The Information Technology Act, 2000 that enables the Central government to block a particular site may not always be effective since the targeted website can easily bypass such censorship. Mirroring sites and VPN are some of the many methods used by the virtual platforms to instantly bypass bans by the government.
Around the first week of March, ‘Fake News’ peddlers forwarded Whatsapp messages asking residents in several cities to stay indoors between 10pm to 5am, as ‘disinfectant spraying procedure’ was underway. Some self-claimed quacks even circulated unscientific medical recommendations claiming they would ward off the effects of Coronavirus. Another said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was likely to declare ‘Emergency In India’ under Article 360. Few posts even went to the extent of claiming that the government was monitoring all social media handles and action will be taken against them. There were also claims made that the ‘Indian Government has announced deductions in the salary/pension of government employees.’
Frequent flow of misinformation, on economic sanctions, geographical displacement and healthcare crisis can give rise to panic and social unrest.
Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Vijaykumar says that disinformation and mal-information causes baseless assumptions among people with lower thresholds. “For a few, the unscientific claims and home-remedies against Coronavirus may be overwhelming and further complicate their confusion, increase anxiety, depression or psychological distress. It is better as a general rule such people stick to updates from WHO and follow health advisories from local government and health agencies.”
Normally, police would book cases under IPC section 505 (1)(b): Statements conducive to public mischief; with intent to cause fear or alarm to the public or induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility. This has been done recently in states like Kerala, Hyderabad , Tamil Nadu, Maharastra on false claims related to Covid-19. In Telangana, officials have even booked a councillor for sharing wrong information on Coronavirus in Sircilla town under Section 54 of the DMA.
What does the law say?
Among the provision enshrined in the DMA, to expedite the ‘effective management of disasters, Articles 51-60 of the Act defines Offences and Penalties both against officers and the public; These include Sections:
51. Punishment for obstruction
52. Punishment for false claim.
53. Punishment for misappropriation of money or materials, etc.
54. Punishment for false warning
55. Offences by Departments of the Government.
56. Failure of officer on duty or his connivance at the contravention of the provisions of this Act.
57. Penalty for contravention of any order regarding requisitioning.
58. Offence by companies.
59. Previous sanction for prosecution.
60. Cognizance of offences
Violating Sections 51, 52 and 53, can result in imprisonment of two-years, fine or both.
Section 54 cites Punishment for false warning:“Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to a disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic, shall on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.”
Further, the DMA states that no court shall take cognizance of an offence under this Act unless the complaint is made by those authorised by national, state or district authorities.
In his column in the Economic Times, Independent Consultant on cyber issues Subimal Bhattacharjee writes that false, misleading posts, information and rumours related to CoVID-19 must be weeded out. While pointing out that state police officials have already started invoking Section 54 of the DMA against offenders, he wrote that it is very specific to disasters, and the ambit today of fake news is much beyond that. According to Bhattacharjee, the IT act must lead the way in framing legal provisions against fake news. He adds that law enforcement agencies, on their part, need to take action against content generators and transmitters of such fake news.