It was the ultimate shoot-the-messenger plea placed before the Supreme Court. Asked why there were pitiful scenes being broadcast of hundreds of thousands of just-above-the-poverty-line migrant workers heading for their villages in different corners of rural India, Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta heaped the blame upon the media. He pointed an accusing finger at all players from mainstream TV channels, newspapers and magazines to social media sites where the public often has its trenchant last word. Mehta dumped on India’s news outlets, saying the migration was triggered by false reports that the lockdown now in force would continue for three months. Mehta then requested that the court pass an order to, in the court’s words: “Prevent fake and inaccurate reporting whether intended or not, either by electronic, print or social media which will cause panic in society.”

Luckily, the court did not oblige the government and pass such an order. But its judicial pronouncement was suitably ambiguous. The court observed that it was “not possible for them to overlook this menace of fake news either by electronic, print or social media.” To that, it added: “We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct the media to refer to and publish the official version about the developments.” Mehta promised that the government website with correct information about the Covid-19 pandemic would be swiftly up and running.

Was the Solicitor-General in effect asking the court to play chief media censor — from whose final word there would be no appeal? It seems the answer can only be yes. In fact, it was an extraordinary request by the Solicitor-General to make to the court as the media was only reporting on an exodus happening before the eyes of the cameras as well as members of the public who were witnessing a stream of people leaving the cities.

The government was right in hoping to stop the millions of migrant workers who have flocked to India’s cities and who might have taken the pandemic with them to the villages. But it erred in not making provision for this easy-to-anticipate flight by daily wagers and other workers who live day-to-day and can’t build large savings to carry them through hard times. These factory, restaurant, domestic and other workers knew that a total lockdown would leave them without earnings for several weeks. They preferred to take the hard option of walking all the way to their villages rather than starve in the cities.

Kerala shows the way

What about the Central government’s claim that fake news was causing panic? The Centre would do well to take note of efforts by the Kerala government which has shown how to stamp out fake news about the Covid-19 outbreak. Every evening, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan ends the day by holding a press conference at which he gives details of what has happened in the previous 24 hours. In addition, the Health Minister, KK Shailaja, is also quick to provide facts. Their handling of the situation has been a masterful display of how to squelch fake news by placing the facts before the public and winning its confidence. The Kerala government has been fighting a tough battle against Covid-19, but it’s shown that the truth is the best armour against which fake news just bounces harmlessly off and dies a natural death.