In stark contrast to the discussions in the Supreme Court where Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta recently called journalists ‘vultures’ and ‘prophets of doom’, the Karnataka High Court had a much more mature and measured hearing on the role of journalists during a pandemic. Hearing a petition seeking state compensation for families of journalists who die of COVID-19 as they cover the pandemic, the High Court observed that the role of journalists and media personnel can neither be underestimated nor undermined.
"We think that the role of journalists and media personnel cannot be underestimated nor undermined during this pandemic and just like the police, doctors, nurses, and government personnel and others who are carrying out essential duties, in the same way, the journalists and other media personnel are on the field so as to disseminate and convey correct information to the citizens of the country about the impact of the pandemic and also other information from the world over," the court observed in an order made public on Monday.
The court also stressed on the importance of ethical and factual journalism at this time. "It is also necessary to observe that in times such as the present, where there is a crisis in public health, the media should be responsible to report the true and correct facts and not exaggerate or sensationalise the same so as to create a fear or panic amongst the people who come across such information," the High Court said.
The division bench comprising Justice BV Nagarathna and Justice Suraj Govindaraj heard the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Jacob George, a resident of Bengaluru. The petitioner had sought for paying compensation of Rs 50 lakh to the kin of a media person who dies of COVID-19 along the lines of the provisions made for healthcare personnel.
The court directed the central and state governments to consider the plea, in its order. The order was given on May 15 and was made publicly available now.
The High Court noted that media personnel had risked their lives to be on-ground including in hotspots and containment zones, to convey information to the public. It also pointed out that the media was ensuring that the distress and despair of people were made known to the government so that suitable action is taken. “While discharging their duties, they face immense challenges in times such as the current pandemic as they expose themselves to the risk of being infected by the virus even as they perform their duties on the frontiers," the High Court bench observed.
The observations of the Karnataka High Court are in stark contrast to the statements made by the Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who argued in the Supreme Court that journalists were acting as 'prophets of doom'. He was arguing during a hearing related to the plight of migrant workers in the country.
“A large number of steps were taken by the government and the Supreme Court was fully satisfied about it earlier. But we have something called prophets of doom who only spread negativity, negativity, and negativity. All these people writing on social media, giving interviews, cannot even acknowledge what is being done…They are not showing any courtesy to the nation,” he said as reported in The Indian Express.
Moreover, he also drew parallels between journalists and 'vultures' by referencing South African photojournalist Kevin Carter’s photo and raked up a debate on the professional responsibility and personal duty of a journalist. He claimed that Kevin Carter clicked a picture of a vulture next to a panic-stricken child and won the Pulitzer Prize for it. “He later committed suicide after four months,” Mehta said.
It was later pointed out that Tushar Mehta quoted a viral WhatsApp forward about the incident and the actual reason for Carter's suicide is not documented.