Access to Public Information
Dotcom Trading 121 (PTY) Ltd v. King
Closed Expands Expression
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The High Court of Karnataka directed the central government to consider the representations made by the petitioners seeking compensation for media persons and newspaper delivery agents in case of death due to Covid-19. The petitioners contended that the media personnel were largely left out from the compensation schemes being announced by the government for medical and police personnel. After considering the crucial role being played by journalists and media personnel in disseminating and conveying information to the citizens about the impact of the pandemic by risking their own lives, the judge was of the opinion that the journalists were carrying out essential duties just like police, doctors and nurses and that their role in a democracy could not be underestimated or undermined.
The public interest litigation was filed by the petitioner seeking directions for compensation of 50,00,000 INR (approx 68,000 USD) to the families of media persons, newspaper delivery agents who had died due to the coronavirus infection. The petition further sought directions for the supply of safety kits, masks, gloves and personal protection equipment to media personnel visiting hospitals and quarantine centres and also sought compulsory health checkups of all the media persons to identify suspected cases of coronavirus.
The present case was presided over by Justice B.V. Nagarathna of High Court of Karnataka. The petititioner’s main argument concerned the omission of media personnel from the compensation schemes being announced by various state governments for police personnel, healthcare workers and volunteers in the event of death from Covid-19 while discharging their duties. To buttress this contention, the petitioner emphasized the vital role being played by media personnel and journalists (both print and electronic media) in creating awareness amongst the general public by disseminating news regarding the spread of coronavirus, and information regarding policies initiated by the Union and State governments [p. 3].
The petitioner stated that in spite of being the primary source of information about the Covid-19, media personnel worked without any social security benefit in the event of death, either from the managements under whom they work or from the governments [p. 3]. The petitioner also asserted that the news reporters were facing greater risk of infection since they regularly interviewed doctors, government officials, and patients who had recovered from the disease, and journalists should be considered as ‘essential services’ and ‘corona warriors’ and therefore compensation schemes should be announced for them by the government [p. 6].
At this point, the additional solicitor general (ASG) challenged the maintainability of the petition by arguing that grant of compensation was a matter of policy and fell outside the purview of the judiciary. He asserted that Article 14 was inapplicable in the present case and that the media personnel could not be equated with police and medical personnel, since they neither performed any public duty nor a state function. He further contended that the journalists were working under private media houses and in case of any death, their family could seek relief from the employer of the deceased and not from the government [p. 10].
He placed reliance on the case of Ramakrishna Mission v. Kago Kunya, wherein the Supreme Court of India had considered article 12 and article 226 of the Constitution in the context of public duty and concluded that when a private body is discharging certain duties, the same could not be construed as public duty or, in the present case, an essential service [p. 11]. He also drew the attention of the Court to the guidelines issued by the central government for the journalists in the form of a welfare scheme [p. 12].
The ASG also argued that enough time was not given to the government to consider the representations of the petitioner since the representation was made to the government on May 5, 2020 and the petition filed in Court on May 6, 2020 [p. 14]. Despite this, the judge directed the government to consider the representations made by the petitioner in accordance with the law for the following reasons.
Firstly, the judge discussed the importance of media in a democracy. He stated that article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution speaks about the freedom of speech and expression and includes the right to information and conversely, the right to freedom of press and electronic media to communicate. The judge then referred to the Reliance Petro-Chemicals Limited v. Proprietors of Indian Express Newspapers Bombay to emphasize that the right to know and to communicate, which are parts of freedom of speech and expression, are necessary ingredients of participatory democracy [p. 16]. The judge emphasized that both these rights are vital for the participation of people in a democracy. He stated that the right to participate by the people is a sine qua non in a democracy and in order to exercise this right, it is necessary that the people are well-informed and hence, the role of the press and the electronic media assumes importance, and is a necessary concomitant in a democracy [p. 16].
Furthermore, the judge discussed the crucial role played by media in disseminating useful information and portraying a correct and accurate picture of the health crisis particularly during times such as the present. The judge stated that “the media personnel would have to risk their health and life to be on ground zero, at hot-spots and in containment zones so as to collect information and convey the same to the public at large, either through the press or electronic media. Hence, journalists, whether working for the press or electronic media, either in the field or in studios/offices play a significant and important role. 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” [p. 17].
The judge also referred to the Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Private Ltd. v Union of India to state that “freedom of press is the heart of social and political intercourse”. The judge observed that the media personnel were risking their life “for the purpose of bringing to the knowledge of the public at large the true facts and to disseminate the correct information about the pandemic and also to further ensure the distress of the people and their despair are made known to the government and its instruments so that suitable action is taken for the containment of the virus” [p. 23].
Calling media the ‘fourth pillar of democracy’, the judge stated that they were carrying out essential duties by disseminating and conveying correct information to the citizens of the country about the impact of the pandemic. After making the above stated observation, the respondent government was directed to consider the representations made by the petitioner within a period of two months.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
By recognizing the important role being played by the journalists and media personnel in dissemination of information during the Covid-19 pandemic by risking their own lives, the judge expanded the freedom of expression.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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